THE BOMBAY High Court on Thursday upheld the life imprisonment of 11 men convicted for the gangrape of Bilkis Bano and murder of her family members during the 2002 Gujarat riots. The court also set aside the acquittal of the remaining seven accused in the case, including Gujarat police officers and doctors of a government hospital, who were charged with suppressing and tampering with evidence.
A total of 18 people now stand convicted in the case.
Sentenced by a trial court in Mumbai in 2008, the 11 men had challenged their conviction in the Bombay High Court. The CBI had also filed an appeal seeking death sentence for three of the accused. The court dismissed both the appeals.
“We cannot be unmindful of the fact that the incident occurred in 2002, 15 years have elapsed since then. These accused have been in custody all this while. Looking at this fact, after a gap of 15 years, we are not inclined to enhance the sentence,” said a division bench of Justices V K Tahilramani and Mridula Bhatkar.
The bench, however, allowed the appeal filed by the prosecution against the acquittal of seven men — five policemen and two doctors — who now stand convicted for not performing their duties (under Section 218 of the IPC) and tampering of evidence (Section 201).
The court observed that all the police personnel from Limkheda who attended to Bilkis were either accused or examined by the defence as defence witnesses, and none of them supported the prosecution’s case.
“In this case, the truth and falsehood are mixed up in such a manner that at every stage of the evidence, the truth is hidden under layers of intentional laxity, omissions, contradictions and falsehood, and the truth is required to be unearthed,” said the court.
Pointing to lapses by the police in the investigation and by the doctors in carrying out the post-mortems, the court said: “We do not require any other proof to infer that police from Limkheda police station wanted to suppress the fact of rape committed on Bilkis. They wanted to screen the perpetrators of the crime for reasons best known to the police.”
Bilkis’s supplementary statement was not recorded as soon as the police were informed of the rape, the court said, adding that the police had “gagged the mouth of Bilkis so that her cry for justice would not be heard by anybody”.
The court observed that Bilkis was not sent for medical examination on the day that she reported the incident. “This corroborates the case of Bilkis that she disclosed that she was raped and injured, but with a view to suppress the fact, she was not sent for medical examination on that day. She stayed overnight in the police station and was sent the next day for medical examination,” said Justice Tahilramani.
“She is the informant and a victim, and relative of the deceased but was not taken to the spot for identification of the spot or bodies. No close relatives were also taken there,” said the court.
The bench said Identification of the bodies was the first step in the investigation. “The police have conducted the post-mortem hurriedly, buried the dead bodies with sacks full of salt, so that the bodies will decompose faster,” said the court.
About the doctors, the HC said, “It is evident that they were not only casual in conducting the post-mortem but suppressed material information by way of omission… Prima facie, one may feel that medical officers are not concerned with the investigation and therefore, they are innocent. However, in our considered opinion and after close scrutiny of the evidence, we could read between the lines which show that the medical officers have completely failed to perform the post-mortem of all the bodies as is expected under the law… In the inquest panchanama, the doctors have only mentioned injury to private parts of one deceased. On perusal of the photographs, one can easily make out that the females were sexually abused when they were put to death.”
On March 3, 2002, just days after the burning of the Sabarmati Express at Godhra station, Bilkis Bano, then 19 years old and five months pregnant, was escaping mobs of rioters along with her family, on board a truck. She was accompanied by 17 others, including a two-year-old daughter.
Their truck was attacked by an armed mob in Randhikpur village of Dahod district. Fourteen members of her family were killed, including her daughter, mother Halima and cousin Shamim. Bilkis was gangraped and left for dead.
Unable to get a case registered with the local police, Bilkis approached the National Human Rights Commission and petitioned the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court directed the CBI to investigate the case. As threats mounted, the family requested the SC to move the case outside Gujarat. The SC then shifted the case to Maharashtra.
Charges were filed against 19 men in a Mumbai trial court. In January 2008, 11 were sentenced to life imprisonment for gangrape and murder. The CBI filed an appeal seeking death penalty for three convicts — Jaswantbai Nai, Govindbhai Nai and Radhesham Shah — charged with planning and executing the crime.
Setting aside the plea for enhancement of punishment, the court said the “entire evidence of Bilkis has to be read in the background of the riots and anti-Muslim atmosphere at Godhra”.
“At the time of investigation, the CBI found that the concerned police personnel of Limkheda police station who were involved in the initial investigation were not only negligent, but deliberately tried to screen the offenders and have also caused disappearance of the evidence of the offence and gave false information to screen the offenders,” said the court.
The convicted policemen and doctors are Narpat Singh, Idris Abdul Saiyed, Bikabhai Patel, Ramsingh Bhabhor, Ramanbhai Bhagora, Dr Arun Kumar Prasad and Dr Sangeeta Kumar Prasad.
The period these seven convicts spent in jail earlier will be seen as their sentence, said the court. Each of them will also have to pay a fine of Rs 20,000 within eight weeks.
In a statement to the media, Bilkis said: “My rights, as a human being, as a citizen, woman, and mother were violated in the most brutal manner, but I had trust in the democratic institutions of our country. Now, my family and I feel we can begin to lead our lives again, free of fear. I am happy that the state and its officials who emboldened, encouraged, and protected the criminals who destroyed the life of an entire community, are no longer unblemished, but today stand charged with tampering of evidence. For officers of the state, whose sworn duty is to protect citizens and enable justice, this should be their great moral shame, to bear forever.”