‘Doubtful if procedure was followed for remission’, says judge who sentenced Bilkis Bano rapists

Retired Justice U D Salvi who had pronounced them guilty agreed that the government has the power to give remission but is doubtful if proper procedure was followed.

On August 15 this year, as the nation pledged to create an environment of respect and awareness towards women’s safety, 11 men convicted in the gruesome Godhra riots of 2002 were set free by the Gujarat government under the Centre’s remission policy.

This decision was backed by the state government stating that the men were set free since they completed 14 years in prison and based on their ‘good behaviour’ in prison.

On Tuesday, a special judge Anand L Yawalkar and the prosecuting agency, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) opposed the 11 convicts’ release in the Supreme Court. The apex court is hearing three petitions challenging their release.

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The documents submitted before the Supreme Court of India suggest that in March 2021, Justice Yawalkar had written to the superintendent of the Godhra sub-jail stating that since the case was heard in Maharashtra, the Gujarat government has no business in the release of the rapists.

Terming as the worst form of hate crime against humanity, the letter said, “In this case, all convicted accused were found guilty of rape and murder of innocent people. That the accused had no enmity or any relation with the victim. The crime was committed only on the ground that the victims belong to a particular religion. In this case, even minor children and pregnant women were not spared. This is the worst form of hate crime and crime against humanity. It affects the consciousness of society. Aggrieved of this crime is society at large (sic).”

In an interview with NDTV, retired Justice U D Salvi who had pronounced them guilty then at the special CBI court agreed that the government has the power to give remission but is doubtful if proper procedure was followed.

“Did they ask the judge under whom the case was heard? I can tell you that I heard nothing regarding this… In such cases, the state government needs to take advice from the central government as well. Did they do that? I have no idea. If they did, what did the central government say?” Salvi asked.

The CBI stated that the crime was “heinous, grave and serious” hence “the accused cannot be released prematurely and no leniency can be given to him”.

In 2008, the 11 men accused of murder and rape were sentenced to life imprisonment by the special CBI court. The verdict was later upheld by the Bombay High Court.

However, as India celebrated her 75th year of Independence, the BJP-led Gujarat state government shocked the country by setting all 11 convicts free. It created an uproar with many including opposition politicians, activists, journalists, and celebrities opposing the decision.

Nationwide protests were conducted where people from all walks of life came together in solidarity with Bilkis Bano and her family. As per reports, Bilkis was numb and had lost faith in the judiciary after hearing the release.

A resident of Randhikpur village in Dahod, Bilkis Bano was of less than 21 years old when she and her family were trying to escape an angry Hindu mob during the 2002 Gujarat riots. However, she lost fifteen members of her family including her three-year-old daughter whose head was mercilessly smashed.

Bilkis was five months pregnant at that time. But the mob did not care and raped her as well as her mother and another female relative who had just given birth the previous day.

When the decision to release the convicts reached Bilkis and her surviving family, her lawyer Shobha Gupta said that they were very scared for their safety.

“Bilkis is in acute shock. For her, the battle was over with the last order of the Supreme Court in 2019, when the compensation was granted. She was now learning to live her life peacefully. She had just started to learn to live in peace without worrying about safety. This decision is a shocker,” Gupta said.

Bilkis and her husband Yakub have five sons, the eldest one is 20 years old.

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