Bilkis Bano case: In SC, Gujarat says convicts released for 'good behaviour' after Centre’s nod
The Union ministry of home affairs (MHA) approved the early release of 11 convicts sentenced to life in 2008, the Gujarat government disclosed before the Supreme Court on Monday.
The Union ministry of home affairs (MHA) approved the early release of 11 convicts sentenced to life in 2008 for the gang rape of Bilkis Bano and murder of seven of her family members, the Gujarat government disclosed before the Supreme Court on Monday, also citing “good behaviour” of the convicts a key reason to grant them remission.
The affidavit submitted by the state government on Monday revealed that remission was granted in August despite objections from the trial court judge who convicted the 11 men, and the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), which investigated and prosecuted the case in Mumbai following the 2004 apex court order of shifting the trial outside Gujarat.
The special judge, in his opinion dated March 22, 2021, declined to sign off the remission request stressing that the crime was committed only because the victim belonged to a “particular religion”, adding the crime committed against women and children in this case were the “worst form of hate crime and crime against humanity”. CBI called the offence “heinous, grave and serious” while turning down the remission requests.
However, after the MHA and the relevant authorities in the Gujarat government, including the jail advisory committee, cleared the decks for the release of 11 convicts, the remission order was issued on August 10.
Bano was 21 years old and five months’ pregnant when she was gang-raped while fleeing the violence during the 2002 Gujarat riots, and her three-year-old daughter was one of the seven people killed. Two days after the release of the convicts, Bano released a statement through her lawyer, saying the latest development has shaken her faith in justice. She urged the Gujarat government to “undo this harm” and give her back the “right to live without fear and in peace”.
The confirmation on MHA’s nod to the proposal of the Gujarat government has come out in public domain for the first time after the release of the 11 life-term convicts on August 15 sparked an outrage from civil society organisations, women rights groups, and leaders cutting across party lines.
Responding to the court notice of August 25 on a PIL that questioned the early release of the convicts, the Gujarat government justified its decision on the grounds that the remission was granted in accordance with the 1992 policy which placed no bar against premature release of rape convicts.
Opinions of all relevant authorities were also considered, said the Gujarat government, adding it “decided to release 11 prisoners since they have completed 14 years and above in prisons and their behaviour was found to be good”.
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“The state government has considered the opinions of the inspector general of prisons (Gujarat), jail superintendents, jail advisory committee, district magistrate, police superintendent (CBI, Special Crime Branch, Mumbai) and Sessions Court, Mumbai (CBI) and the MHA. Hence, the opinions of the seven authorities were considered,” stated the affidavit submitted in the Supreme Court on Monday.
Of these seven authorities, the sessions judge and the CBI police superintendent turned down the separate pleas by all 11 convicts to allow their premature release but MHA and the authorities under the Gujarat government ratified the requests.
“In the present case, the investigation was carried out by the CBI and the state government has obtained the approval/suitable orders of the Government of India,” stated the affidavit. It will be taken up by a bench of justices Ajay Rastogi and CT Ravikumar on Tuesday.
The affidavit said that since all the convicts had completed at least 14 years in prison, opinions of the concerned authorities were obtained as per the 1992 policy and were submitted to MHA trough letter dated June 28, 2022 for the latter’s approval.
“The government of India conveyed the concurrence/approval of the central government under Section 435 of the CrPC for premature release of 11 prisoners vide letter dated July 11, 2022,” pointed out the state. Section 435 of CrPC lays down that a state government can exercise its power of remission in cases investigated by CBI only after consultation with the Centre.
The state government underlined that the remission orders were issued on August 10 granted as per the 1992 policy and not under the MHA circular governing grant of remission to prisoners as part of celebration of “Azadi Ka Amrit Mahotsav”.
MHA had in June announced a special remission policy to decongest jails as part of the “Azadi Ka Amrit Mahotsav (75 years of Independence) celebrations, but kept rape convicts out of the ambit of the reprieve.
The 11 men were released on August 15 after one of them, Radheshyam Shah, approached the Supreme Court in April seeking remission, arguing that they had spent over 15 years in prison in the case. In May, the top court directed the state government to consider their plea in accordance with the 1992 policy – the one prevalent on the date of their conviction. While the latest remission policy of 2014 prohibits early release of rape convicts, no such restrictions were there in the 1992 policy.
The state filed its affidavit in response to the PIL, filed jointly by former CPI MP Subhashini Ali, journalist Revati Laul, and professor Roop Rekha Verma. Citing the “gruesome” facts recorded by the trial court and the Bombay high court while sentencing the convicts, the plea said: “It would be entirely against public interest and would shock the collective public conscience, as also be entirely against the interests of the victim (whose family has publicly made statements worrying for her safety) to grant remission in such a case.”
The state government, through its affidavit, demanded dismissal of the petition arguing that a PIL is not maintainable in a criminal matter. “The petitioner is in no way connected to the proceedings which either convicted the accused in question nor with the proceedings which culminated in grant of remission to the convicts. Thus, a petition at the instance of a mere busybody which has political machinations is liable to be dismissed,” it contended.