The Indian Supreme Court, the country’s highest court, on Monday January 8 annulled the release of eleven convicts in a gang rape case, ordering their return to detention. The men were convicted of gang-raping Bilkis Bano, a pregnant woman, in the western state of Gujarat in 2002, during one of the worst religious riots since the country’s independence.

Bilkis Bano and two of his children were the only survivors of a group of Muslims attacked by a Hindu mob in the state. Seven of the 14 people murdered were members of his family, including his three-year-old daughter.

The eleven convicts were released in August 2022 on the recommendation of a state government expert panel. They must now return to prison within two weeks, the court in New Delhi ruled. “Their request for protection of their liberty is rejected,” the Supreme Court said on Monday. “Keeping them at liberty would not be consistent with the rule of law,” the body said, adding that “arguments that appeal to emotion become hollow in the face of facts.”

Narendra Modi accused then cleared

Current Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi was head of the state of Gujarat at the time of the riots in 2002. Mr. Modi was accused of turning a blind eye to the riots, but was cleared in 2012, two years before his party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), took power nationally.

The men were given a hero’s welcome upon their release and a video widely shared online showed relatives and well-wishers welcoming them with sweets and garlands. Their release sparked angry reactions across the country, especially as it coincided with India’s Independence Day celebrations, during which Mr. Modi spoke about the security of women.

“The release of these convicts deprived me of my peace and shook my faith in justice,” Bilkis Bano said in a statement at the time. “My grief and wavering faith are not for me alone, but for all women fighting for justice in the courts.”

The opposition Congress party welcomed Monday’s decision, saying it highlighted a “cruel disregard for women” on the part of the BJP. “India will not allow the administration of justice to depend on the religion or caste of the victim or perpetrator of a crime,” its spokesperson Pawan Khera said on the social network X ( ex-Twitter).