Human rights groups and Muslim representatives have expressed outrage over the release of 11 men serving life sentences for gang rape and murder during the 2002 Gujarat riots that killed over 1,000 people, the majority of whom were Muslims.
The 11 convicts in the case of gang rape survivor Bilkis Bano were released from jail on Monday in Gujarat, India's western state, after authorities approved their appeal for "remission of sentence".
On March 3, 2002, Bilkis Bano was gang-raped, and 14 members of her family, including her three-year-old daughter Saleha, were massacred by the mob in the Limkheda area of Dahod district.
According to the court's verdict, Saleha was killed by pounding her head on the ground. Bano was 21 at the time and five months pregnant. She survived the carnage by pretending to be dead and then losing consciousness.
Bano later told prosecutors that the 11 men convicted were from her neighbourhood.
Gujarat is the home state of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who was the state's chief minister at the time and has been accused of not doing enough to stop the killings.
Raj Kumar, a top official in Gujarat state, told local English daily The Indian Express that the application for remission filed by the 11 convicts was considered due to the “completion of 14 years” in jail and other factors such as “age, nature of the crime, behaviour in prison and so on."
'What message does it send?'
Niyaz Farooqui, secretary of Jamiat Ulama-i-Hind, India's largest socio-religious Muslim organisation, was among the Women's rights campaigners and Muslim representatives who slammed the government's decision.
"This gives a wrong signal. Following all the legal procedures, justice was delivered to the victims, and now the convicts have been released. What message it would send?" he said, adding that the convicts "should not have been released under these circumstances."
The All India Progressive Women's Association has issued a statement criticising the government.
"The conviction of communal killers and rapists is after all an aberration in India, not the rule. Does the remission intend to restore the rule of impunity for communal killers and rapists?" it said.
"Today it has become commonplace for Hindu supremacists to openly give calls for genocide and rape of Muslims - without any consequences. The decision to free Bilkis Bano’s rapists emboldens such men and their followers to act on their threats," it added.
Shamshad Pathan, a Gujarat-based advocate who has represented victims of the 2002 riots, said that the ruling is a huge disappointment.
"Legally and morally it is not correct," he said, adding that the victims had fought a lengthy battle and had faith in the system. However, the victim has been greatly disappointed by this choice, he argues.
He stated that life imprisonment for serious offences entails serving the rest of one's life in jail. In the country, life convictions often involve a 14-year prison sentence.