Lawyer Vrinda Grover speaks to the media after the Supreme Court cancelled the early release of 11 convicts in Bilkis Bano case. Image Credit: ANI

NEW DELHI: India’s top court ruled on Monday that 11 murderers convicted of a gang rape that drew global outrage but who were released early must return to jail.

The victim, Bilkis Bano, was three months pregnant in 2002 when she was gang-raped and seven of her relatives, including her three-year old daughter, murdered during the riots that swept through the state, killing more than 1,000 people.

Also read

The 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.

They must now return to jail within two weeks, the Supreme Court in New Delhi ruled.

“Their plea for protection of their liberty is rejected,” the Supreme Court said.

Allowing them to remain free would “not be in consonance of the rule of law”, it added.

The men were eligible for remission of their sentence under a policy that was in place at the time of their convictions. At the time of their release, officials in Gujarat had said the convicts were granted remission because they had completed over 14 years in jail.

Revised policy

A revised policy adopted in 2014 by the federal government prohibits remission release for those convicted of certain crimes, including rape and murder.

Following the release of the convicts, the victim had filed a petition with the Supreme Court, saying “the en masse premature release of the convicts… has shaken the conscience of the society.”

The men were accorded a heroes’ welcome when they were released in 2022 and a viral video showed relatives and supporters welcoming them with sweets and garlands.

The convicts’ release triggered angry reactions across the country, especially since it coincided with India’s Independence Day celebrations.

Soon afterwards, Bilkis said she was “bereft of words”.

At the time, she said in a statement released by her lawyer that she “trusted the system” and was “learning slowly to live with her trauma”.

“The release of these convicts has taken from me my peace and shaken my faith in justice,” she said then. “My sorrow and my wavering faith is not for myself alone but for every woman who is struggling for justice in courts.”