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In Bilkis Bano Case, Supreme Court Sends 11 Convicts Back To Jail

Nineteen months after 11 convicts in the Bilkis Bano gangrape and murder case were granted remission in the two-decade-old fight, the Supreme Court said that Gujarat government was not the competent authority to allow the release of the convicts.

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A protest against the release of 11 convicts in Bilkis Bano case, Aug 28, 2022
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On August 15, 2022, the nation was taken aback when 11 men convicted of gangrape of Bilkis Bano and the murder of her family during the 2002 Gujarat riots got to walk free. Today, January 8, 2024, the long fight by Bilkis Bano found back its ground as the Supreme Court overturned the Gujarat government’s May 2022 order that had allowed remission to the men. The convicts, who had received a grand garland welcome by the far-right Hindutva clan on their release, have been sent back to jail now.

The top court bench of Justices B V Nagarathna and Ujjal Bhuyan said that Gujarat government was “not competent to” release the convicts who gangraped Bilkis Bano and killed members of her family in the post-Godhra riots that engulfed many areas of the western state. The State of Gujarat, the court said, was not the “appropriate government” to pass the order as the matter was held in the State of Maharashtra. Accordingly, the convicts have now been given two weeks by the Supreme Court to surrender in prison.

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The horrifying details of the gangrape of a pregnant Bilkis Yakub Rasool, 21 at the time, have been around for nearly two decades. Her three-year-old daughter and six others from her family were killed in front of her eyes in Dahod district of Gujarat amid the communal riots. The trial had first begun in 2004 when Bano expressed apprehensions that witnesses in the case could be harmed and the CBI evidence could be tampered with. The Supreme Court had then transferred the case to Mumbai.

The trial went on for years and 12 convicts remained in jail--one of whom died--under life imprisonment order by a special court, while seven others, including the policemen and doctors, were acquitted. However, on August 15, 2022, the convicts were given a jail-free card and they walked out of the Godhra sub-jail under an outdated remission policy of the Gujarat government, setting off a massive political row. The mumming of the order was such that Bano and her family were not even aware of it until they saw the media reports.

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“The trauma of the past 20 years washed over me again when I heard that the 11 convicted men who devastated my family and my life and took from me my 3-year-old daughter, had walked free,” Bano had said in a statement in 2022.

At the hearing today, her lawyer, Advocate Shobha Gupta argued, “This barbaric crime has left an indelible mark on Bilkis. Therefore, this is not a case where the convicts deserve mercy. The convicts should be sent back. I'm beseeching this court with folded hands to send them back where they have come from." 

While the Supreme Court’s order is a small relief to the Bano and her family who have lived half their lives fighting for justice, it does not mean the end to their fight. The top court’s verdict to nullify the Gujarat government’s decision transfers the responsibility to the State of Maharashtra where the convicts will now seek to challenge their imprisonment.

In this light, Outlook traces back the long road for Bilkis Bano’s fight, the laws around the case and where it stands.

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