The Supreme Court, hearing a clutch of petitions challenging the premature release of 11 convicts in the 2002 Gujarat Bilkis Bano case, on Monday asked the Centre and the State Government if the freeing of the convicts was in sync with the remission standards in such cases.
The apex court asked both the governments to produce all the relevant documents on the next day of the hearing.
Are standards applied uniformly in this case? Asks SC
Justice KM Joseph, who is part of a two-judge bench hearing the petitions, stated, “We have before us many murder cases where convicts are languishing in jails without remission for years. Is this a case where standards have been applied uniformly as in other cases too?”.
The special bench, which also has Justice BV Nagarathna, was constituted to hear several petitions challenging the Gujarat government's move to release the 11 men on Independence Day last year. They were convicted in 2008 for the gangrape of Bilkis Bano and the mass murder of her family during the 2002 riots in Gujarat.
The convicts were prematurely released on the basis of an outdated policy, consulting a panel that included Godhra MLA CK Raolji and leaders linked to the ruling BJP, after the Supreme Court asked the State to take a decision on a plea for release by a single convict.
Bano's lawyer argues over jurisdiction of state
The key question in the Monday’s hearing was about the jurisdiction with Bano’s advocate arguing that the State where the case was heard should have been asked to take the call.
The hearing in the original case was shifted from Gujarat to Maharashtra as it was felt that a fair trial would not be possible in a state which saw large scale violence in 2002 following the death of 59 kar sevaks in the burning Sabarmati Express.
Senior advocate Vrinda Grover, representing CPM politburo member Subhasini Ali, journalist Revati Laul and former vice-chancellor of the Lucknow University Roop Rekha Verma, stated that both the Central Bureau of Investigation and the presiding judge of the trial court were against the remission.
"Substantive sentence is on 14 counts of murder and three counts of gang-rape. Fine of total Rs 34,000 and in default 34 years. It is undisputed that the fine is not paid. So the default sentence will come, that has not been served," Grover argued.
The convicts argued that they have already served more than 15 years, when life term convicts are released after 14 years. When their counsel Rishi Malhotra argued that an "emotional plea is not a legal plea," Justice Joseph said, "We are not going to be overwhelmed by emotions… have to strike balance… It is a horrendous crime".
A series of petitions have been filed challenging the release of the 11 rapists. Bilkis Bano had filed two petitions -- one of them asked the apex court to review its May 2022 order, directing the Gujarat government to consider a convict's plea for release. That has been dismissed by the court.
Panel explained their verdict by referring accused as "sanskari" Brahmins
The Gujarat Government had released all the convicts in response to the court's order and a single convict's release petition. The members of the panel that took the call had justified their decision calling the men "sanskari" Brahmins who have already served 14 years in prison and displayed good behaviour.
Meanwhile, the Congress dubbed as "immoral and shameful" as one of the rapists, Shailesh Bhatt, sharing a stage with BJP MP Jaswant Bhabhor and his MLA brother Shailesh Bhabhor at a government event at Limkheda in Dahod district of Gujarat.
Opposition parties slam BJP
"I want to see these monsters back in jail & the key thrown away. And I want this satanic government that applauds this travesty of justice voted out. I want India to reclaim her moral compass," Trinamool Congress (TMC) MP Mahua Moitra wrote on Twitter.
Shiv Sena (Thackeray group) MP Priyanka Chaturvedi wrote: "A convicted rapist is now free thanks to BJP. There is just no need for the government to even pretend [to be] concerned anymore towards women safety. Shameful."
Congress MLA Jignesh Mevani hit out at the Centre by saying that: "BJP as a party has not just lost their conscience but have normalised every wrong happening in the society. Things have clearly moved beyond shame now. Sharing a stage with BJP MP and MLAs is a rapist of Bilkis Bano who spent 15 years in jail."
The 11 convicts were garlanded and offered sweets upon their premature release on August 15, 2022. BJP leader BJP CK Raulji justified their release by claiming that they are "Brahmins with good values".
The Union Ministry of Home Affairs approved the premature release of the convicts, while the Gujarat government cited their "good behavior" as a key reason to grant remission.