Exactly a month after the Supreme Court allowed the Gujarat government to free 11 accused in the rape of Bilkis Bano, India awoke to the horrific rape and murder of two Dalit girls in Uttar Pradesh (UP), only this time the suspects arrested on Thursday were mostly Muslims.

The minor Dalit sisters, aged 15 and 17, were found hanging from a tree in Uttar Pradesh state’s Lakhimpur Kheri district, and police said they were allegedly raped and strangled before being hanged.

Reports said that five of the six suspects arrested were Muslim, but their ages not disclosed.

They were charged under sections of the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act (POCSO), 2012. One of the accused was caught following an encounter, they said.

Police identified the six as Chotu, Junaid, Suhail, Hafizul Rehman, Karimuddin and Arif.

“All the accused and the girls belong to the same village. Chotu, son of Chetram, was known to the girls in the past and he was the one who had introduced the girls to three of the accused. Later, when the girls started forcing them for marriage, the accused strangulated and hanged them,” said Lakhimpur Kheri SP Sanjeev Suman.

Reports said that apart from Chotu alias Gautam, three of the other accused, who were acquainted with the girls, were identified as Suhail, son of Islamuddin, Hafizul Rehman alias Majhalka, and Junaid.

“Junaid was arrested following an encounter on Thursday morning and he has a gunshot injury in one of his legs,” the police officer said, adding that these three called two more of their friends from the same village — Karimuddin alias DD and Arif, son of Ahmad Hussain — to assist them in hanging the girls from the tree.

The mother of the victims said that while she was taking a bath around 3pm on Wednesday when she heard Chotu, who frequents their area, calling out to her daughters. Soon, three boys came and started dragging her daughters away, she added.

“I tried to stop them and ran behind them, but they beat me up and left. I shouted and ran back to seek help from the villagers,” the mother said.

UP Deputy Chief Minister Brajesh Pathak vowed to take strict action against the accused. “The government will take such an action that the souls of their coming generations will also shiver. Justice will be given,” he told news agency ANI.

“The kidnapping and murder of two minor Dalit sisters in Lakhimpur in broad daylight is a very disturbing incident,” said Congress leader Rahul Gandhi.

“Women’s safety cannot be expected from those facilitating the release of rapists and welcoming them,” the former Congress chief said in an apparent reference to the freeing of 11 convicts in the Bilkis Bano gang rape case last month after the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led Gujarat government allowed their release under its remission policy.

As soon as the news about the alleged murder of the Dalit girls broke, Congress General Secretary Priyanka Gandhi Vadra attacked the BJP-led UP government over “increasing” crimes against women in the state.

“The killings of two sisters in Lakhimpur Kheri are heart-wrenching. The relatives say that the girls were abducted in broad daylight,” she said in a tweet in Hindi.

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