New Delhi: The Supreme Court said Monday it wanted to know more about Gujarat’s remission policy, as it heard petitions challenging the release of 11 convicts who were earlier serving the life sentence in the Bilkis Bano gang-rape-and-murder case dating back to the Gujarat riots.
The court said it wanted to do so considering that the crime committed by the 11 men had been identified by all as a “horrendous act”.
A bench of justices K.M. Joseph and B.V. Nagarathna is hearing a set of petitions filed against the Gujarat government’s decision to grant remission to 11 lifers in the Bilkis Bano gang-rape-cum-murder case, which led to their controversial release last August.
“Our experience is that people are languishing in jail and coming here (to SC) against state’s decision not to release them. Does the state (Gujarat) have an across-the-board level-headed policy to be followed?” the bench said.
Defending the Gujarat government’s remission order, advocate Rishi Malhotra, who argued for one of the lifers in the court, pointed out that the state affidavit submitted to the court outlined the details of the advisory board that cleared the 11 for remission and also the procedure followed.
He said the board comprised a judge, social workers, apart from government officials. The majority of the members, he added, favoured the release of the 11 on the grounds that they had recorded good behaviour during their incarceration period.
“Nobody raised a hue and cry when they were in jail. Now, when they are released, subsequent to the orders of this (SC) court, petitions have been filed raising emotional arguments,” Malhotra said.
The petitioners, apart from Bano, have no locus standi in the matter and, therefore, should not be heard, he added.
The bench assured Malhotra that it would “not get overwhelmed by emotions” and that what it is “concerned is whether the law was followed or not”.
“What we are going to say will have an effect on the state of prisoners. We have to put things in state of balance,” the bench said.
The court then went on to formally issue notice to the 11 men on Bano’s petition.
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Bilkis Bano pleas in SC
Bano had moved the court in November last year, much after two petitions challenging the release were filed.
CPI(M) leader Subhashini Ali, independent journalist Revati Laul, former Lucknow University vice-chancellor Roop Rekha Verma, and TMC MP Mahua Moitra are among the other petitioners and had approached the top court in October 2022.
Bano was 21 years old and five months pregnant when she was gang-raped while fleeing the post-Godhra riots. Her three-year-old daughter was among the seven family members who were killed in the violence.
The investigation in the case was handed over to the CBI on the orders of the Supreme Court. The trial of the case was moved out of Gujarat to Mumbai.
On 21 January 2008, a special CBI court in Mumbai had sentenced the 11 to life imprisonment on charges of gang rape and murder. Their conviction was upheld by both the Bombay High Court and the Supreme Court.
On 15 August last year, the 11 walked out of jail after the Gujarat government allowed their release under its remission policy. The release courted controversy with many critics claiming the Gujarat government was not the appropriate authority to release the 11, and that Maharashtra should have taken a call for the remission plea.
However, it was revealed that the top court had in May last year authorised the Gujarat government to consider the remission applications and decide on the basis of its 1992 policy, which was in operation when the crime took place.
While the 1992 policy permitted the state to grant premature release to rape convicts, a subsequent policy barred it.
In the outrage that followed the release of the 11 men, two petitions were first filed in the Supreme Court, on which notice was issued in October. Later, Bano, too, filed two separate petitions — one that challenges the remission given to the 11 and the second seeking a review of the May 2022 SC order, which asked Gujarat to decide the remission applications.
Monday’s hearing happened after Bano’s lawyer mentioned her petitions before the CJI’s bench Friday.
Advocate Shobha Gupta said although her client’s petition got listed once, the same could not be heard because one of the two judges on the bench hailed from Gujarat and had recused himself from hearing the matter.
Appearing for one of the petitioners, advocate Vrinda Grover argued that the lifers had not even deposited the fine that they were supposed to in terms of the court order.
“The total amount comes to Rs 34,000. If they have not paid then in default they have to undergo a sentence of 34 years,” Grover said.
The court will not hear final arguments in the case on 18 April.
(Edited by Sunanda Ranjan)
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