By Sakshi Dayal
NEW DELHI (Reuters) -India’s top court on Monday quashed the release of 11 Hindu men who had been jailed for life for gang-raping a pregnant Muslim woman and murdering her relatives during Hindu-Muslim riots in Gujarat state in 2002, a lawyer in the case said.
The court directed the men to surrender to prison authorities within two weeks, the lawyer added.
The victim, Bilkis Bano, was three months pregnant when she was gang-raped and seven of her relatives, including her three-year old daughter, murdered during the riots that killed more than 1,000 people, most of them Muslims.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi was Gujarat’s chief minister at the time and his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party still rules the state.
The men, convicted in 2008, were freed by the Gujarat government in August 2022 after the prison they were being held in recommended their release considering the time served and their good behaviour.
Their release drew condemnation from the victim’s husband, lawyers, and politicians. Local media reported that several petitions were filed in the Supreme Court challenging the remission, including one by the victim herself.
In its verdict on Monday, the court held that Gujarat did not have the authority to reduce the sentence since the trial was moved to Mumbai, making neighbouring Maharashtra state responsible for the decision.
“The court has said that the law is clear, the appropriate government is the government where the accused are tried and sentenced,” advocate Vrinda Grover, among the lawyers appearing for the petitioners, said.
The bench also held that a 2022 Supreme Court order, which directed the Gujarat government to consider remission, was obtained fraudulently, local media reported.
“Gujarat government usurped the powers of Maharashtra government…which in our opinion is a nullity,” the court said, according to news website Live Law.
The Gujarat government will comment on the verdict only after going through the detailed order, a senior state official said, speaking on condition of anonymity as they are not authorised to speak to the media.
There was no immediate reaction to the verdict from the 11 men.
The main opposition Congress party welcomed the decision.
“Bilkis Bano’s tireless struggle is a symbol of the victory of justice against the arrogant BJP government,” Congress leader Rahul Gandhi posted on social media platform X.
Two BJP spokespersons in New Delhi did not respond to Reuters requests for comment. Two BJP spokespersons in Gujarat declined to comment.
(Additional reporting by Sumit Khanna in Ahmedabad and Rupam Jain in New Delhi; Editing by YP Rajesh, Raju Gopalakrishnan, Ros Russell and Sharon Singleton)