Kolkata: Peoples Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) and six thousand people from across India condemned the release on remission of the 11 convicts in the Bilkis Bano case on August 15, 2022.
Under remission policy, 11 convicts charged with charges of gang rape of a pregnant woman and multiple murders during Gujarat riots in 2002, walked out free.
PUCL in its statement mentioned, “The release of the 11 convicts, even as many others accused of less serious offences remain in jail, is an arbitrary exercise of power, having dangerous political overtones.”
And pointed out, “It mocks the idea of a democracy based on rule of law when those accused of serious offences including rape and murder are arbitrarily released even as those who are falsely accused of crimes, continue to languish in jail.”
“The release of the accused sends out the chilling message that the most heinous crimes including rape and murder when committed against the minority community, are not crimes. This has fatal repercussions for the future of Indian democracy,” it said.
While Sahelis stated on behalf of six thousand activists ordinary citizens, grassroot workers, women’s, human rights, peace, secularism, anti-caste, disability, queer rights and other peoples’ movements, groups and activists, eminent writers, historians, scholars, filmmakers, journalists and former bureaucrats and many more, said:
“On the morning of August 15, 2022, in his Independence Day address to the nation, the Prime Minister of India spoke of women’s rights, dignity and Nari Shakti. That very afternoon Bilkis Bano, a woman who embodied that ‘Nari Shakti’ in her long and daunting struggle for justice, learnt that the perpetrators who killed her family, murdered her 3-year-old daughter, gang-raped and left her to die, had walked free.”
It further said, “No one sent her notice. No one asked how she, a gang-rape survivor, felt about the release of her rapists… it shames us that on the day we should celebrate our freedoms and be proud of our independence, the women of India instead saw gang-rapists and mass murderers freed as an act of State largesse.”
And added, “The remission of sentences for the 11 convicted of gang-rape and mass murder will have a chilling effect on every rape victim who is told to ‘trust the system’, ‘seek justice’, ‘have faith’. Further, the statement stated that the “remission of these sentences is not only immoral and unconscionable, it violates the State of Gujarat’s existing remission policy…” and “the guidelines issued by the Central government to States on a prisoner release policy to coincide with Azadi ka Amrit Mahotsav which also clearly states that among the categories of prisoners NOT to be granted Special Remission are “those convicted of rape”. Most importantly, in a case investigated and prosecuted by the CBI, no remission can be granted by a State without concurrence from the Centre. That such remission was even considered and then permitted, reveals the hollowness of the public posturing about Nari Shakti, Beti Bachao, women’s rights and justice for victims.”
The signatories urged the Supreme Court to undo this grave miscarriage of justice.
While PUCL made found demands:
1. The remission of these 11 convicts be immediately revoked
2. Protection measures for Bilkis and her family be immediately ensured
3. The Central and State government be held accountable for such arbitrary abuse of power
4. The Government of Gujarat should place in the public domain the entire process, the proceedings of the committee leading to the governor finally giving assent to the remission of sentences.
Meanwhile, On March 3, 2002, Bilkis Bano from Randhikpur village of Dahod district Gujarat was 21 years old and 5 months pregnant when she was gang raped, 3 other women including her mother were also gangraped in front of the men of their family. Bilkis’s 3-year-old daughter Saleha was murdered, as the accused smashed her head with a stone and 7 members of her family were brutally murdered. All those who committed this gruesome act of brutality were people she knew from her neighbourhood.
Due to public outrage in the matter, the Supreme Court ordered the investigation to be carried out by CBI. In 2004 the accused in the case were arrested and the trial began in Ahmedabad, however, due to apprehensions over the trial being conducted in Gujarat, fearing evidence tampering and threats to the witnesses, the trial was transferred to Maharashtra by the Supreme Court.
On January 21, 2008, the Special CBI Court sentenced the 11 accused to life imprisonment on the charges of conspiring to rape a pregnant woman, murder, and unlawful assembly under the Indian Penal Code (IPC). The court acquitted seven other accused for lack of evidence and one of the accused died during the trial.
In January 2018 the Bombay High Court upheld the conviction of the accused. The case was carried to the Supreme Court which upheld the convictions.
Thereafter, one of the accused Radheyshyam Shah approached the Gujarat High Court seeking remission of the sentence under sections 432 and 433 of the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC). The Gujarat HC dismissed his plea saying that since the trial has been concluded in the State of Maharashtra, the application for premature release must be filed in the State of Maharashtra and not in the State of Gujarat, as prayed by the petitioner.
The petitioner approached the Supreme Court, and the court in its order dated May 13, 2022, held that the crime in the instant case was admittedly committed in the State of Gujarat and ordinarily, the trial was to be concluded in the same State and terms of Section 432(7) CrPC, the appropriate Government in the ordinary course would be the State of Gujarat but the instant case was transferred in exceptional circumstances by this Court for the limited purpose for trial and disposal to the neighbouring State (State of Maharashtra) by an order dated August 6, 2004, but after the conclusion of the trial and the prisoner being convicted, stood transferred to the State where the crime was committed (Gujarat) which remains the appropriate Government for Section 432(7) CrPC. The policy with which the petitioner must be governed, applicable in the State of Gujarat on the date of conviction, is Resolution No. JLK/3390/CM/16/Part/2/J dated July 9, 1992.
Based on the order of the Apex Court, the government of Gujarat formulated a committee to consider the release of the accused and found it fit to allow the pre-mature release of these accused.
Recently, the Ministry of Home Affairs, Central Government issued a notice on the “Special Remission Module” to grant remission to prisoners as part of the celebration of Azadi Ka Amrit Mahotsav and directed the states to take necessary action to expedite the process, the notice says prisoners to be released on August 15, 2022, January 26, 2023 and August 15, 2023 after due consideration by the committees formulated at the state levels. However, the guideline mentions that the policy will not apply to prisoners convicted of rape.
Similarly, as per the resolution no JKL/822012/1859/J dated January 23, 2014 of the Government of Gujarat Home Department, prisoners convicted of gang rape, or group murder of two or more members would not be considered for remission.
However, the Resolution No. JLK/3390/CM/16/Part/2/J dated July 9, 1992. according to which the 11 convicts were released have not categorised the convicts as eligible for the remission process. In any case, this is a discretionary relief that has to be exercised on an objective basis. In the present case where the Supreme Court had itself felt that the situation in Gujarat was not ripe for handling the trial and the victim and her family were constantly under pressure and threat the discretion should not have been exercised to release the persons. It was also incumbent, in the context of the case, to ascertain the views and apprehensions of Bilkis and her family before any decision was taken.
It should be noted that under section 435 of the CrPc if the case is investigated by the CBI, the power of remission that is awarded to the state government in a case investigated by the CBI shall not be exercised by the government except after consultation of the central government.
The PUCL release also mentioned, “The arbitrary release of these 11 convicts sends a rude shock across the nation, raising several questions as to how the State of Gujarat has arrived at this decision and how has the central government remained silent after affirming decisions on such matters. The decision to grant remission should be consultative, fair, informed, and reasonable. Here it is evident that the state has abused the discretionary power awarded to it.”
“This decision also mocks the efforts of all the human rights defenders in the country who have been walking the difficult path to seek justice for the most vulnerable in this country.”
“Bilkis and Yakub did not give up their faith in the state for nearly 17 years and fought tooth and nail for justice. The family today is again pushed into the darkness of fear, their faith shaken, and their world shattered.”