New Delhi: 11 men convicted in the gangrape of then five-month pregnant Bilkis Bano and murder of seven members of her family during 2002 Gujarat riots were freed on Monday, August 15, when India celebrated its 75 years of Independence. The decision has come as a shock after the long-drawn path for justice which had only in 2017 seen the Bombay High Court uphold the life sentence awarded to the convicts by a trial court.
The Gujarat government approved the convicts’ application for remission of the life imprisonment sentence. According to a report by The Indian Express, Additional Chief Secretary (Home), Raj Kumar, was quoted as saying that 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.”
The HC judgement from 2017 reveals the details of the gruesome case from March 3, 2002, when 19-year-old Bano was gangraped – as were two other women, her mother and sister – and at least seven of her family members were murdered.
While the men were convicted for seven murders, the prosecution had claimed 14 members of Bano’s family in total had been murdered – bodies of only seven were recovered. Bano’s three-and-a-half-year-old daughter, Saleha’s body was among those not found.
Crimes Of The Convicted
Out of the three men accused of gangrape, one of them, Naresh R Modhiya expired during the pendency of the trial. The other two are Jaswantbhai Chaturbhai Nai and Govindbhai Nai, who have been released.
According to Bano’s testimony, Shailesh Bhatt, one of the 11 convicted, was the man who snatched her daughter Saleha and smashed her on the rocky ground – a prosecution witness identified Bhatt as carrying a sword in the mob. Thereafter, Jaswant Nai, Govindbhai Nai and accused Naresh Modhiya caught her. “They tore her clothes,” the statement said, going on to describe the assault which she realised none of her family members could save her from because they were all being assaulted.
“She pleaded to leave her as she was pregnant,” the court document says, but the three raped her. “She became unconscious and when she became conscious, she found that she was naked and the dead bodies of her family members were lying around. She was scared.”
Apart from the 12 accused, there were others whom Bano had stated, she may be able to identify.
The other convicts released are 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.
Those named above, according to Bano’s statement “tore off the clothes of the other females in the group and committed rape on them and assaulted the male members in their group.”
Sequence Of A Lengthy Trial
The conviction had come after a long-drawn trial, which had started off with the police dismissing her case on the basis of lack of evidence on March 25, 2002. In December of 2003, Bano approached the National Human Rights Commission of India and petitioned the Supreme Court which then ordered an enquiry by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI).
The CBI arrested the accused named by Bano by January 2004, collecting all evidence by exhuming the bodies. In August 2004, the SC moved the trial of the case from Gujarat to the Bombay HC and directed the Central government to appoint a public prosecutor. After almost four years, in January 2008, the trial court convicted 13 persons of criminal conspiracy, rape and murder, out of which 11 were sentenced to life imprisonment.
This then went into appeal in the Bombay High Court, with the accused challenging their conviction.
Meanwhile, the CBI by July of 2011, appealed to the Bombay HC for death convictions of three of the convicts.
It was only in July 15, 2016, that the Bombay HC began hearing appeals filed by the 11 convicts. It was by December of the same year 2016 that the Bombay High Court reserved its order on appeals filed by 11 convicts against the life sentence while also reserving its order on an appeal filed by the CBI seeking death penalty for three convicts on the ground that this was the ‘rarest of the rare’ case.
It was May 2017, when the Bombay High Court upheld the life sentence order of the trial court against the 11 accused in the 2002 Bilkis Bano gangrape case.