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The National Commission for Human Rights (NHRC) is likely to take up for discussion today the grave matter pertaining to the remission of sentence and release of convicts in the Bilkis Bano case, reports the Indian Express. The publication says they received confirmation about the same from the office of Justice Arun Mishra, chairperson of the Commission.
Readers would recall that on August 15, eleven people convicted in the Bilkis Bano case were freed from Godhra sub jail after a state government panel approved their application for remission of sentence. The men had been convicted for gang raping Bano and murdering 14 people including Bano’s two and a half-year-old daughter Saleha.
The convicts who have been freed are: Jaswant Nai, Govind Nai, Shailesh Bhatt, Radhyesham Shah, Bipin Chandra Joshi, Kesarbhai Vohania, Pradeep Mordhiya, Bakabhai Vohania, Rajubhai Soni, Mitesh Bhatt and Ramesh Chandana. All these men were known to Bano and her family, some were her neighbours, some did business with her family.
Brief background of the case
Bilkis Bano and her family had been attacked in Randhikpur village near Ahmedabad on March 3, 2002. In the particularly brutal attack, 14 members of her family were killed including Bano’s two-and-a-half-year-old daughter whose head was smashed on a rock! Bano, who was over five months pregnant, was gang raped.
After Bano approached the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), the Supreme Court ordered a probe by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI). The accused were arrested in 2004 and the trial originally began in Ahmedabad. However, Bano expressed concerns about witness intimidation and evidence tampering, and the case was transferred to Mumbai in August 2004.
In January 2008, a special CBI court convicted 11 people in the case and sentenced them to life imprisonment. But seven people including policemen and doctors were acquitted. In 2017, the High Court upheld the conviction of the 11 people. The court also raised important questions about the role of five policemen and two doctors accused of not performing their duty and tampering with evidence, and set aside their acquittal.
Reason for release
One of the convicts Radheshyam Shah had approached the Gujarat High Court seeking remission of sentence, but the court dismissed his plea stating the appropriate government to consider his plea under sections 432 and 433 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, was Maharashtra and not Gujarat.
Readers would recall that though the trail had originally started in Ahmedabad, it had been moved to Mumbai after Bano expressed concerns about witness intimidation and evidence tampering.
After the Gujarat HC dismissed his remission application, Shah moved SC, and the apex court ruled in May that Gujarat was the appropriate state to examine his plea.
A news agency reported that a few months ago, a committee had been formed to look into the possibility of setting the men free. Panchmahals collector Sujal Mayatra was quoted as saying, “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.”
Gujarat Additional Chief Secretary (Home) Raj Kumar had at that time explained, “Among the parameters considered are age, nature of the crime, behaviour in prison and so on…The convicts in this particular case were also considered eligible after considering all the factors since they had competed for 14 years of their life term.”
However, legal luminaries and civil society were quick to point out how under provisions of remission policies, rape and murder convicts were ineligible. Justice UD Salvi, the judge who had convicted the eleven men, told Bar and Bench, “A very bad precedent has been set. This is wrong, I would say. Now, convicts in other gang rape cases would seek similar reliefs.” He further explained, “There is no clarity if the State has made amendments to Section 376(2)g of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) and its definition. Has the State changed the definition of gravity of this offence of gangrape? If there is a modification in its definition, then the 1992 policy would be applicable. But if the definition and gravity of gangrape continues to be the same without amendment, then the policy of 2014 would be applicable, which would mean they shouldn’t be given remission.”
But what could potentially be viewed as another deeply disturbing element of the release is that at least five people on the Advisory Committee that recommended the release are allegedly connected to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Citing an official document that lists the members of the advisory committee, NDTV said it included two BJP MLAs, a member of the BJP state executive committee and two others, who are also linked to the party.
BJP MLA from Godhra CK Raulji, and BJP MLA from Kalol Sumaben Chauhan, were both members of the Committee, as were “social workers” Vinita Lele, Pawanbhai Soni and Sardarsingh Patel. According to NDTV, Lele’s social media profile claims she is a BJP member. Meanwhile, BJP’s website reportedly lists Soni as a member of the state executive committee of the party. The channel claims Patel is also a member of the party and that they got his contact information from the BJP office in Godhra.
Raulji infact went on to say that he wasn’t sure if the convicts were actually involved in the crime. He told the Indian Express, “It is possible that they (the convicts) might have been fixed in the case due to their past family activities. When such riots take place, it happens that those who are not involved are named. But I don’t know if they committed the crime, we decided (on remission) based on their behaviour.” He further said, “We asked the jailer and learnt that their behaviour was good in the prison…also (some of the convicts) are Brahmins. They have good ‘sanskaar’ (values).”