New Delhi: The Gujarat government’s decision to release the 11 men sentenced to life imprisonment for the gangrape of Bilkis Bano and the murder of seven members of her family during the 2002 Gujarat riots will be under scrutiny. In June this year, the Central government had announced a ‘Grant of Special Remission to Prisoners’, but had listed in bold that those convicted of rape, and those convicted with sentences of life imprisonment, among others, should “NOT” to be granted the special remission.
The announcement of special remission came as part of the government’s celebration of ‘Azadi ka Amrit Mahotsav’, marking 75 years of India’s Independence. But as the convicted rapists and murderers walked out of the Godhra sub-jail on August 15, the irony was not lost on many.
First, how this case reached the state government of Gujarat, led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which also rules the Centre. One of the convicts, Radheshyam Bhagwandas Shah, approached the Supreme Court with request for early release after having served more than 15 years. The SC then directed the Gujarat government to look into the issue of remission of his sentence following which the government formed a committee, according to a PTI report.
Panchmahal Collector Sujal Mayatra, who headed the panel, was also 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.”
As per the home ministry communication to all states and Union Territories, those prisoners who fulfil the eligibility criteria for remission would be released in three phases – August 15, 2022, January 26, 2023 and August 15, 2023.
The criteria for eligibility includes women and transgender convicts of 50 years of age and above, male convicts of 60 years of age and above, physically challenged and disabled convicts with 70 per cent disability and more, who have completed 50 per cent of their total sentence. And also convicted prisoners who have completed two-third or 66 percent of their total sentence period.
However, the main clause being that those convicted of rape, or to a life term are not eligible. But some may quote the Code of Criminal Procedure (CRPC) Section 432 (1) which says that the appropriate Government may, at any time, without Conditions or upon any conditions which the person sentenced accepts, suspend the execution of his sentence or remit the whole or any part of the punishment to which he has been sentenced.
The 11 men who were convicted of their crimes by the CBI court in 2008, had their sentences upheld by the Bombay High Court in 2017.
The crime took place in March of 2002, when Bilkis Bano was 19-years-old and five months pregnant. She was attacked by a mob which included the 11 convicted men, who murdered at least seven members of her family, three out of them raped her – two of these are amongst the 11 convicted, as one died during trial – and the others also raped her mother and sister.
While the men were convicted for 7 murders, the prosecution had claimed 14 members of Bano’s family in total had been murdered – bodies of only 7 were recovered, with Bano’s three-and-half-year-old daughter, Saleha’s body one of those not found. Bano alleged that one of the convicts, who has also been released, snatched Saleha and smashed her on the rocky ground.
The men who have been released are: Jaswantbhai Chaturbhai Nai, Govindbhai Nai who raped Bano; Shailesh Bhatt accused by Bano of killing Saleha; Radheshyam Bhagwandas Shah, Bipinchand Kanaiyalal Joshi, Kesharbhai Khimabhai Vohania who a witness identified as seeing him holding a petrol can, while part of the mob which was shouting, “Kill Muslims”. The other convicts Pradip Ramanlal Modhiya, Bakabhai Khimabhai Vohania, Rajubhai Babulal Soni, Ramesh Rupabhai Chandana, Mitesh Chimanlal Bhatt.