Eleven convicts serving life imprisonment in the Bilkis Bano gangrape case from the 2002 Gujarat riots were freed from the Godhra sub-jail on Monday after a state government panel approved their application for remission of sentence, according to senior officials.
Gujarat Additional Chief Secretary (Home) Raj Kumar told The Indian Express that the application for remission was considered due to the “completion of 14 years” in jail and other factors such as “age, nature of the crime, behaviour in prison and so on”.
Bilkis was gangraped and her three-year-old daughter Saleha was among 14 killed by a mob on March 3, 2002, in Limkheda taluka of Dahod district. Bilkis was pregnant at the time.
The Supreme Court had ordered a CBI investigation in the case after Bilkis approached the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC). In August 2004, the Supreme Court directed the trial to be transferred from Gujarat to Maharashtra after Bilkis alleged death threats from the accused.
On January 21, 2008, CBI special court judge U D Salvi convicted 13 accused, sentencing 11 to life imprisonment on the charge of gangrape and murder following an in-camera trial in Mumbai. In May 2017, the conviction was upheld by the Bombay High Court.
In 2019, the Supreme Court awarded compensation of Rs 50 lakh to Bilkis — the first such order in a case related to the 2002 riots. “It is very apparent that what should not have happened has happened and the state has to give compensation,” the apex court bench of the then Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi, and Justices Deepak Gupta and Sanjiv Khanna, had said.
The 11 who have been set free are: Jaswant Nai, Govind Nai, Shailesh Bhatt, Radhyesham Shah, Bipin Chandra Joshi, Kesarbhai Vohania, Pradeep Mordhiya, Bakabhai Vohania, Rajubhai Soni, Mitesh Bhatt and Ramesh Chandana.
In its 2008 verdict, the CBI court held that Jaswant Nai, Govind Nai and Naresh Kumar Mordhiya (who died later) raped Bilkis while Shailesh Bhatt killed Saleha by “smashing” her on the ground. The other accused were convicted for rape and murder, as being part of “an unlawful assembly” distributes the liability of the crime, the court said.
On Monday, Additional Chief Secretary (Home), Raj Kumar, said: “The 11 convicts have served a 14-year sentence in total. According to law, a life term means a minimum period of 14 years after which the convict can apply for remission. It is then the decision of the government to consider the application. Based on eligibility, prisoners are granted remission after the recommendation of the prison advisory committee as well as district legal authorities.”
In this case, Kumar said: “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.”
Panchmahals collector Sujal Mayatra told PTI: “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.”
In the verdict of 2008, CBI special court judge Salvi termed Bilkis’s “courageous deposition” as the turning point in the case. The judge also considered the testimony of a minor and photographs of bodies of the victims without footwear — and observed that the “bodies had been moved, without footwear, from the scene of crime, indicating a conspiracy”.
The judgment also considered that Bilkis had identified all the accused during the trial — she told the court that most of them were known to her and had purchased milk from her family.
The CBI court upheld the prosecution’s case that Bilkis was gangraped, assaulted and left to die at Randhikpur, 250 km from Ahmedabad, when 17 members of her family were walking to flee their riot-hit town.
According to the prosecution, the group was attacked with swords and sticks, and eight of Bilkis’ family members were killed, including her daughter, while six went missing. On March 4, 2002, dressed only in a skirt and bleeding, Bilkis walked down the hill where her family had been massacred to seek help, the court was told. She found a tribal woman who gave her clothes and met a home guard who took her to the Limkheda police station to lodge a complaint, the prosecution said.
Police constable Somabhai Gori had been awarded three years imprisonment for shielding offenders. In the Supreme Court, the Gujarat government had said that action was taken against the police personnel convicted in the case — a pension cut for three personnel who had retired and demotion by two ranks for R S Bhagora, who was promoted to the IPS in 2007 and was close to retirement at the time. Bhagora had been charged with evidence-tampering.
The counsel for Bilkis, Shobha Gupta, had told The Indian Express in 2019: “On March 3, 2002, Bhagora brought Bano to constable Somabhai and recorded her statement, in which he intentionally removed all 12 names of the accused. Then, on March 6, district collector Jayanti Ravi visited the camp and took her statement again in which all accused were named. Ravi forwarded the file to the Dahod SP for action who then forwarded the file again to Bhagora. Despite repeated reminders, Bhagora did nothing till July 2002, and eventually filed the closure report, saying that the event is true but undetected and the accused are untraceable. The Bombay High Court judgment had called the role of police officials as callous.”—(With PTI inputs)