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New Delhi: All 11 convicts sentenced to life imprisonment for the 2002 Bilkis Bano gang rape and murder of 14 members of her family on Monday walked out of Godhra sub-jail after the Gujarat government allowed their release under its remission policy.
A special Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) court in Mumbai on January 21, 2008, sentenced the 11 accused to life imprisonment on the charge of gang rape and murder of 14 members of Bilkis Bano’s family. Their conviction was later upheld by the Bombay high court.
These convicts had served more than 15 years in jail after which one of them approached the Supreme Court with a plea for his premature release.
The apex court had directed the Gujarat government to look into the issue of remission of his sentence following which the government formed a committee, said Panchmahals Collector Sujal Mayatra, who headed the panel.
“A committee formed a few months back took a unanimous decision in favour of remission of all the 11 convicts in the case. The recommendation was sent to the state government, and yesterday we received the orders for their release,” said Mayatra.
Human rights lawyer Shamshad Pathan said on Monday night that a large number of convicts who have committed a less heinous crime than the Bilkis case continue to languish in jails without any remission. Pathan said when a government takes such a decision the hope of the victim in the system diminishes.
After the violence erupted following the burning of a Sabarmati Express coach that killed 59 ‘karsevaks ‘on February 27, 2002, Bilkis Bano, who was five-month pregnant at that time, fled her village with her toddler daughter and 15 others.
On March 3, they took shelter in a field when a mob of 20-30 people armed with sickles, swords and sticks attacked them and Bilkis Bano was gang raped, while 14 members of her family were killed. Six other members managed to run away.
Given the outrage over the incident, the Supreme Court ordered a CBI probe.
The accused in the case were arrested in 2004.
The trial began in Ahmedabad. However, after Bilkis Bano expressed apprehensions that witnesses could be harmed and the evidence collected by the CBI tampered with, the Supreme Court transferred the case to Mumbai in August 2004.
The special CBI court on January 21, 2008, sentenced the 11 accused to life imprisonment on the charge of gang rape and murder of 14 members of Bilkis Bano’s family. They were convicted on charges of conspiring to rape a pregnant woman, murder and unlawful assembly under the Indian Penal Code.
The special court acquitted seven other accused for want of evidence. One of the accused had died during the trial.
In its 2018 order upholding the conviction of the accused persons, the Bombay high court set aside the acquittal of seven persons.
The Supreme Court, in April 2019, directed the Gujarat government to pay Rs 50 lakh compensation, a job, and a house to Bilkis Bano. At the time, others who had been victims of serious violence during the communal riots in Gujarat saw this judgment as a ray of hope.
“The honorable Supreme Court has let me know it stands with me. It understood my pain, my suffering and my struggle to regain the constitutional rights that were lost in the violence of 2002. No citizen should have to suffer at the hands of the state, whose duty it is to protect us,” Bilkis Bano had said then.
The 11 convicts who were granted premature release are Jaswantbhai Nai, Govindbhai Nai, Shailesh Bhatt, Radhesham Shah, Bipin Chandra Joshi, Kesarbhai Vohania, Pradeep Mordhiya, Bakabhai Vohania, Rajubhai Soni, Mitesh Bhatt, and Ramesh Chandana.
One of them, Radheshyam Shah, had approached the Gujarat high court seeking remission of the sentence under sections 432 and 433 of the Code of Criminal Procedure.
The high court dismissed his plea while observing that the “appropriate government” to decide about his remission is Maharashtra and not Gujarat.
Shah then filed a plea in the Supreme Court pleading that he had been in jail for 15 years and four months without remission as of April 1, 2022.
Also read: Bilkis Bano and the Question of ‘Trust’
In its order dated May 13, the top court stated that since the crime was committed in Gujarat, the state of Gujarat was the appropriate government to examine Shah’s application.
The SC directed the Gujarat government to consider the application for premature release in terms of the policy dated July 9, 1992 and may decide within two months.
“There are several accused whose conviction term is over but they are not released from jails on the grounds that they are part of some gang or are involved in one or two murders. But in heinous cases like this, the Gujarat government easily approves the remission of the convicts and allows them to walk out of the jail,” said Pathan.
This was not just a case of murder but also of gang rape of a heinous kind.
“When a government takes such a decision the hope of the victim in the system diminishes. Even when the Supreme Court directed the Gujarat government to consider their remission, it should have considered against the remission rather than allowing it,” said the lawyer.
When contacted, Gujarat Congress spokesperson Manish Doshi said he will comment only after getting details.
(With PTI inputs)
Note: An earlier version incorrectly stated that seven members of Bilkis’s family were murdered. The actual number is 14.