Bilkis Bano's family is surprised at the release of 11 men convicted of raping her during the 2002 Gujarat Riots.
The 11 men were sentenced to life imprisonment in 2008 by a Special Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) Court on the charges of gang rape and murder of seven members of Bano's family. Their conviction was later upheld by the Bombay High Court. All of them were released on Monday.
"We were surprised to know that the convicts have been released," Bano's husband Yakub Rasul told PTI.
Bano was 21 years old and five months pregnant when she was raped while fleeing the violence that broke out post the Sabarmati train incident in Godhra.
Rasul added, "We don’t know when the convicts processed their application and which ruling the state government took into consideration. We never received any kind of notice."
What's the Bilkis Bano case?
Violence erupted in Gujarat after Sabarmati train was burnt in Gujarat's Godhra on February 27 2002. Fifty-nine karsevaks were killed in the train.
On March 3, Bano was fleeing with her toddler daughter and 15 others when they took shelter in a field. A mob of 20-30 people armed with sickles, swords and sticks attacked them. Bano was gangraped while seven members of her family were killed. Six other members managed to run away.
The Supreme Court ordered a CBI probe into the incident after public outrage emerged.
The accused in the case were arrested in 2004 and the trial began in Ahmedabad. However, after Bano expressed apprehensions that witnesses could be harmed and the evidence collected by the CBI tampered with, the apex court transferred the case to Mumbai.
On January 21 2008, the Special CBI Court sentenced the 11 accused to life imprisonment on the charges of conspiring to rape a pregnant woman, murder and unlawful assembly under the Indian Penal Code. The court acquitted seven other accused for lack of evidence. One of the accused had died during the trial.
In its 2018 order upholding the conviction of the accused, the Bombay High Court set aside the acquittal of seven persons.
Why have the convicts been released?
All the 11 convicts in the Bilkis Bano case on Monday walked out of Godhra sub-jail.
They were released after the Gujarat government allowed their release under its remission policy, an official said.
They had served more than 15 years in jail after which one of them approached the Supreme Court with a plea for his premature release. The apex court directed the Gujarat government to look into the issue of remission of his sentence following which the government formed a committee, said Panchmahals Collector Sujal Mayatra, who headed the committee.
"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," said Mayatra.
Before approaching the Supreme Court, Radheshyam Shah — whose plea paved way for the release of all convicts, had approached the Gujarat High Court seeking remission of the sentence under sections 432 and 433 of the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC). The Gujarat HC dismissed his plea saying that the "appropriate government" to decide about his remission is Maharashtra and not Gujarat.
Shah then approached the apex court. In its order dated May 13, the Supreme Court stated that since the crime was committed in Gujarat, the state of Gujarat was the appropriate government to examine Shah's application. The Gujarat government eventually released Shah and others.
Questions on the Bilkis Bano case convicts' release
Human rights lawyer Shamshad Pathan said on Monday night that a large number of convicts who have committed a less heinous crime than the convicts in the Bilkis Bano case continue to be in jails without any remission.
He added that when a government takes such a decision the hope of the victim in the system diminishes.
Pathan further said, "There are several accused whose conviction term is over but they are not released from jails on the grounds that they are part of some gang or are involved in one or two murders. But in heinous cases like this, the Gujarat government easily approves the remission of the convicts and allows them to walk out of the jail."
He added that this was not just a case of murder but also of gang rape of a heinous kind.
Pathan further said, "When a government takes such a decision the hope of the victim in the system diminishes. Even when the Supreme Court directed the Gujarat government to consider their remission, it should have considered against the remission rather than allowing it."
All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) chief Asaduddin Owaisi slammed Prime Minister Narendra Modi over their release.
In his Independence Day speech, Modi had asked Indians to take a pledge not to do anything that lowers the dignity of women, Owaisi said.
“He said something about supporting “Nari Shakti”. Gujarat BJP govt released criminals convicted of gang rape on the same day. The message is clear,” said Owaisi in a tweet.
What Bilkis Bano's family says
Besides expressing surprise at the news of the release of convicts, Bilkis Bano's husband Yakub Rasul said the Gujarat government had paid the family a compensation of Rs 50 lakh as directed by the Supreme Court, but is yet to provide a job or a house as directed by the apex court.
He added that he lives virtually in hiding with his wife and five sons, the eldest one 20 years old.
Rasul further said, "We don't intend to say anything on this. I can talk only after getting the details. All we want to do is pray for peace of the souls of our near and dear ones we lost their lives in the riots. Everyday we remember those who were killed in the incident, including our daughter."
He added that he still does not have a fixed address even after 20 years of the incident.
Convicts say they were victims of politics
While the family expresses surprise at the release and a lawyer cited above questioned it, the convicts claim they were victims of politics.
The convicts were welcomed with sweets and garlands outside the jail upon their release.
Convict Shailesh Bhatt claimed that they were "victims of politics".
"Singor is a small village. All the convicts belong to this village. We were all victims of politics," said Bhatt, 63.
He said he was a farmer and also an office-bearer of the district unit of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) while his brother worked as a clerk at Panchmahals Dairy when they were arrested.
He added, "We were arrested in 2004 and remained in jail for more than 18 years. It feels good to be home with my family members. Everybody is happy that we are back. My son was eight or nine years old then, now he is an adult and works with Panchmahal Dairy. I am happy for him."
Radheshyam Shah, whose plea led to their release, said they were "framed" because of their ideology.
"We were framed up because of our belief in certain ideology," claimed Shah.
He further said, "The Gujarat government has released us as per the order of the Supreme Court. I feel glad to be out as I will be able to meet my family members and begin a new life. We were convicted and lodged in jail. When I was not released after completing 14 years in jail, I approached the Supreme Court for remission. The apex court directed the Gujarat government to take a decision, after which we were released."
(With PTI inputs)