Bilkis Bano case: Row erupts over rapists’ release
The 11 men were released on Monday after one of them approached the Supreme Court in April 2022 seeking remission, arguing that they had spent over 15 years in prison in the case.
A political controversy broke out on Tuesday over the release the previous day of 11 men in Gujarat convicted for the 2002 gang rape of Bilkis Bano and the murder of seven of her family members, with the Opposition and civil society alleging that rules were broken to free the men from Godhra jail and the state government saying it followed due process.
The 11 men were released on Monday after one of them approached the Supreme Court in April 2022 seeking remission, arguing that they had spent over 15 years in prison in the case. Bano was 21 years old, and five months pregnant when she was gang-raped while fleeing the violence during the 2002 riots, and her three-year-old daughter was one of the seven killed.
The Congress said the decision to release Bano’s rapists had brought out the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government’s “mindset”.
“Yesterday, from the ramparts of the Red Fort, the Prime Minister spoke big things about women’s safety, women’s power, women’s respect. A few hours later the Gujarat government released those behind the rape. We also saw that the convicts in the rape who were released are being honoured. Is this the Amrit Mahotsav,” party spokesperson Pawan Khera said.
All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) chief Asaduddin Owaisi tweeted, “This is the BJP’s version of AZADI KA AMRIT. People who are guilty of a heinous crime have been given freedom. BJP’s bias for a religion is such that even brutal rape & hate crimes are forgivable.”
Gujarat BJP spokesperson Yamal Vyas declined to comment on the matter.
A special Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) court in Mumbai in January 2008, sentenced the 11 accused to life imprisonment on the charge of gang rape and murder of seven members of Bano’s family in 2002. Their conviction was later upheld by the Bombay high court.
Bano’s husband Yakub Rasul told news agency PTI, “We were surprised to know that the convicts have been released. We don’t know when the convicts processed their application and which ruling the state government took into consideration. We never received any kind of notice.”
The convicts, freed on Monday after a state government panel approved their application for remission of sentence, were given a warm welcome by the family members and neighbours. The 11 convicts granted release are Shailesh Bhatt, Jaswantbhai Nai, Govindbhai Nai, Radheshyam Shah, Bipin Chandra Joshi, Kesarbhai Vohania, Pradeep Mordhiya, Bakabhai Vohania, Rajubhai Soni, Mitesh Bhatt, and Ramesh Chandana, all from Singor village in Gujarat’s Dahod district.
One of the convicts, Radheshyam Shah, approached the Gujarat high court seeking remission of the sentence under sections 432 and 433 of the Code of Criminal Procedure. The court turned down his plea stating that the appropriate government to decide his remission was Maharashtra and not Gujarat. He then approached the apex court. In its order dated May 13, 2022 the Supreme Court stated that as the crime was committed in Gujarat, the state of Gujarat was the appropriate government to examine Shah’s application.
Asked what factors led to the decision to grant them remission, Raj Kumar, additional chief secretary(home) said, “The remission of the 11 convicts was considered after taking various factors like life imprisonment term in India which is typically of 14 years or more, age, behaviour of the person and so on. The remittance application was considered on merit. It is also under the domain of the state government.”
In January 2014, the home department of the government of Gujarat issued a fresh policy for considering the cases of “State Remission and Premature Release of Prisoners” which said that a certain class of prisoners “shall not” be granted premature release. This included cases investigated by the CBI, prisoners sentenced for group murder of two or more persons, and “prisoners convicted for murder with gang-rape.”
Asked why these did not apply in this case, a senior Gujarat government official who asked not to be named said that the Supreme Court order directed that the remission be assessed based on the terms of a 1992 Gujarat government policy, in force during the conviction. In its judgement, the apex court had said, “The respondents(the state) are directed to consider the application of the petitioner for premature release in terms of its policy dated July 9, 1992, which is applicable on the date of conviction and may be decided within a period of two months. If any adverse order is passed, the petitioner is at liberty to seek remedy available to him under the law.”
Raj Kumar said the top court had asked the government to consider the early release of these 11 convicts under the state’s remission policy in effect when they were pronounced guilty. “These 11 persons were convicted by a special court in Mumbai in 2008. At the time of conviction, Gujarat was following a remission policy which came into effect in 1992. When the matter reached the Supreme Court, it directed us to decide about the release under the 1992 policy, because that was prevalent when conviction came in 2008,” Kumar told PTI.
He said the guidelines about premature release issued by the Centre on the occasion of Azadi Ka Amrit Mahotsav did not apply in the case because the SC had directed the state government to take into account the 1992 policy.
The central government recently introduced a scheme in which women, disabled and transgender inmates, male prisoners above the age of 60, who have completed more than half their total sentence, among others will be released, as per home ministry guidelines. The scheme, the ministry had said, did not apply to prisoners sentenced to death or life imprisonment, and convicted in rape, terror charges, dowry deaths and money laundering cases.
In 2019, the Supreme Court awarded compensation of ₹50 lakh to Bano — the first such order in a case related to the 2002 riots.
Shah, the convict whose plea for premature release paved the way for all the 11 life sentence convicts to walk out of jail, said, “The Gujarat government has released us as per the order of the Supreme Court. I feel glad to be out as I will be able to meet my family members and begin a new life. When I was not released after completing 14 years in jail, I approached the Supreme Court for remission,” he said.