Bano, now in her forties, was five months pregnant when she was gang-raped during the 2002 anti-Muslim violence in Gujarat state.
India’s Supreme Court has quashed the remission given to 11 Hindu men who had been jailed for life for the gang rape of Bilkis Bano and murdering her relatives during anti-Muslim riots in the western state of Gujarat in 2002.
The top court on Monday directed the 11 men to surrender to the prison authorities in Gujarat within two weeks.
“Their plea for protection of their liberty is rejected,” the court said. “To keep them out would not be in consonance of the rule of law.”
Bano, now in her 40s, was five months pregnant when she was gang-raped during the violence, which saw nearly 2,000 people, most of them Muslims, killed in some of the worst religious riots India has experienced.
Seven of the 14 people murdered in one incident were Bano’s relatives, including her three-year-old daughter, whose head was smashed on the ground by the perpetrators in Gujarat’s Dahod district.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi was Gujarat’s chief minister at the time, and his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) still rules the state.
The 2002 riots have long hounded Modi, who was accused of ordering the state authorities to allow and encouraged the bloodshed.
Modi has repeatedly denied having any role and the Supreme Court has said it found no evidence to prosecute him.
The 11 men, convicted in early 2008, were ordered freed by the Gujarat government in August 2022 after the prison they were being held in recommended their release, considering the time they had served and their good behaviour.
A viral video at that time showed the relatives and supporters of the men welcoming them with sweets and garlands.
But their release also drew widespread condemnation, especially since it coincided with India’s Independence Day celebrations, when Modi spoke about women’s safety and security.
Reacting to the release, Bano had then said she was “bereft of words”. In a statement released by her lawyer, she was “learning slowly to live with her trauma” but “trusted the system”.
“The release of these convicts has taken from me my peace and shaken my faith in justice,” she had said. “My sorrow and my wavering faith is not for myself alone but for every woman who is struggling for justice in courts.”
Several petitions challenging the remission were filed in the Supreme Court, including one by Bano herself.
The opposition Congress party welcomed Monday’s ruling, saying it exposed the BJP’s “callous disregard for women”.
“It is a slap on the face of those who facilitated the illegal release of these criminals and also those who garlanded the convicts and fed sweets to them,” spokesman Pawan Khera posted on X, previously known as Twitter.
“India will not allow administration of justice to be incumbent on the religion or the caste of the victim or the perpetrator of a crime.”
There was no immediate reaction to the verdict from the 11 men and the Gujarat government.
In its verdict, the top court held that Gujarat did not have the authority to reduce the sentence of the 11 men since the trial of the case was moved to India’s financial capital Mumbai.
The Supreme Court said state government in Gujarat was not competent to pass the remission orders of the convicts, adding that “arguments with emotional appeal become hollow when placed in juxtaposition with the facts of the case”.
Al Jazeera and news agencies