Explained: The 2002 Bilkis Bano gang-rape case and the row over the release of the 11 convicts

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Good behaviour.

That’s the reason the Gujarat government gave to the Supreme Court on the matter of the release of 11 men convicted for the gang-rape of Bilkis Bano and killing of her family during the 2002 Gujarat riots.

Defending its decision of granting remission to the 11 men, the Gujarat government also told the Supreme Court that the release of the men was approved by the Union home ministry within two weeks.

The Gujarat government further 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”.

The Supreme Court on Monday was hearing a PIL filed by Communist Party of India (Marxist) Politburo member Subhashini Ali, Trinamool Congress MP Mahua Moitra, and one other person challenging the release of the men.

Earlier in August, 11 men, who had been convicted of the gang rape of Bilkis Bano and killing of her family during the 2002 riots, had been set free — causing a furore in society and leaving Bilkis numb and speechless.

Her husband, Yakub Rasool, had told the Indian Express at the time, “We have been left numb, shocked and shaken. The battle we fought for so many years has been wrapped up in one moment. A sentence of life imprisonment given by the court has been curtailed in such a manner… We had never even heard of the word ‘remission’. We didn’t even know that such a process exists.”

What is the Bilkis Bano case?

Gujarat had turned violent after the Sabarmati train was burnt in Godhra on 27 February 2002. Fifty-nine karsevaks were killed in the train.

Fearing the outbreak of violence, a then five-month pregnant Bilkis Bano fled from Randhikpur, her village, with her three-and-a-half-year-old daughter and 15 other family members.

They took refuge in the Chhaparvad district. However, on 3 March, they were attacked by about 20-30 people armed with sickles, swords, and sticks. Among the attackers were the 11 accused men.

Bilkis, her mother, and three other women were raped and brutally assaulted. Of the 17-member group of Muslims from Radhikpur village, eight were found dead, six were missing. Only Bilkis, a man, and a three-year-old survived the attack.

As per multiple reports, Bilkis regained consciousness three hours after the incident and after borrowing clothes from an adivasi woman made her way to the Limkheda police station to register a complaint.

Bilkis was taken to a public hospital for medical examination only after she reached the Godhra relief camp. Her case was taken up by the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) and Supreme Court, which ordered an investigation by the CBI.

What happened in the case?

The accused in the case were arrested in 2004 and the trial began in Ahmedabad. However, after Bilkis expressed apprehensions that witnesses could be harmed and the evidence collected by the CBI tampered with, the apex court transferred the case to Mumbai.

On 21 January 2008, the Special CBI Court sentenced 11 accused to life imprisonment on the charges of conspiring to rape a pregnant woman, murder and unlawful assembly under the Indian Penal Code. The court acquitted seven other accused for lack of evidence. One of the accused had died during the trial.

The court held that Jaswantbhai Nai, Govindbhai Nai, and Naresh Kumar Mordhiya (deceased) had raped Bilkis, while Shailesh Bhatt had killed her daughter, Saleha, by “smashing” her on the ground.

Others who were convicted are Radheshyam Shah, Bipin Chandra Joshi, Kesarbhai Vohania, Pradeep Vohania, Bakabhai Vohania, Rajubhai Soni, Nitesh Bhatt, Ramesh Chandana, and Head Constable Somabhai Gori.

According to The Indian Express, Judge Salvi termed Bilkis’ “courageous deposition as the turning point in the case.”

Almost 10 years after this, the Bombay High Court, in May 2017, upheld the conviction and life imprisonment of 11 people in the gang rape case.

In 2019, the Supreme Court awarded compensation of Rs 50 lakh to Bilkis — the first such order in a case related to the 2002 riots. “It is very apparent that what should not have happened has happened and the state has to give compensation,” the apex court bench of the then Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi, and Justices Deepak Gupta and Sanjiv Khanna, had said.

A screen grab of the 11 convicts in the Bilkis Bano gang-rape case after walking out of the Godhra sub-jail. Image Courtesy: ANI/Twitter

Why have the convicts been released?

One of the convicts, 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 take a decision 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 1 April 2022.

The apex court directed the Gujarat government to look into the issue of remission of his sentence following which the government formed a committee, said Panchmahal Collector Sujal Mayatra, who headed the committee.

“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.

The 11 convicts in the Bilkis Bano case on Monday walked out of Godhra sub-jail.

Defending the decision, Gujarat Additional Chief Secretary, Home, Raj Kumar, was quoted as telling news agency PTI that the Supreme Court had asked the government to consider early release of these 11 convicts under the state’s remission policy which was in effect when they were pronounced guilty in the case by the trial court.

“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.

Gujarat adopted a new and revised remission policy for prisoners in 2014. In that policy, which is currently in effect, there are detailed guidelines about categories of convicts who can or cannot be given relief, said the senior bureaucrat.

“Since the conviction took place in 2008, the SC directed us to consider this case under the 1992 policy, which was in effect in 2008. That policy did not have any specific clarity as to who can be given remission and who can’t. That policy was not that detailed in comparison to the 2014 policy,” said the IAS officer.

With inputs from agencies

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Explained: The 2002 Bilkis Bano gang-rape case and the row over the release of the 11 convicts
Explained: The 2002 Bilkis Bano gang-rape case and the row over the release of the 11 convicts
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