The Supreme Court on January 8 quashed the order of premature release granted by the State of Gujarat in August 2022 to 11 men sentenced to life imprisonment for the gang rape of Bilkis Bano and the murder of her family during the 2002 riots.
The court ordered them to report back to jail in two weeks.
Part of a mob, the 11 convicts were serving life terms for the attack on Bano, as well as the murder of 14 of her family members, during the riots.
However, they were released in August 2022 by order of Gujarat’s government.
Their release as well as the celebrations as they left prison, caused widespread outrage. When the men were freed in 2022 they were welcomed as they stepped out of the jail in Godhra, with relatives giving them sweets and touching their feet ‘to show respect.’
Bano told the Supreme Court in a petition that the release of the men had ‘shaken the conscience of the society.’
Calling it ‘one of the most gruesome crimes this country has ever seen,’ she said the release had left her ‘shell-shocked and completely numb.’
‘How can justice for any woman end like this? I trusted the highest courts in our land. I trusted the system, and I was learning slowly to live with my trauma,’ she wrote, appealing to the Gujarat government to ‘undo this harm.’
The two-judge Supreme Court bench, headed by Justice BV Nagarathna, said the state of Gujarat was ‘not competent’ to pass the remission order in the case, since the men had been tried and convicted in a court in the neighbouring state of Maharashtra.
The bench added that since the government’s remission order had been nullified, the convicts must return to prison.
‘Justice encompasses not just the rights of the convicts but also the rights of the victims” and the “primary duty” of the court is to uphold justice and rule of law, ‘Justice Nagarathna said, adding that the ‘rule of law must be preserved unmindful of the ripples of the consequences.’
The landmark judgement is expected to create ripples, especially in Gujarat where Prime Minister Narendra Modi, then chief minister of the state had faced criticism for his management of the situation.
Modi has always denied wrongdoing and was given a clean chit by a special investigation team, later upheld by the Supreme Court.
Officials said in court that the men, first convicted by a trial court in 2008, had spent more than 14 years in jail and were released after factors such as their ‘age and good behaviour in prison’ were taken into consideration.
The Gujarat state government said it had sought the Centre’s approval, which was granted by the home ministry.
Prosecutors said they should not be ‘released prematurely and no leniency may be shown’ to them as their crime was ‘heinous, grave and serious.’
The first arrests in the case were made only in 2004 after India’s Supreme Court handed over the case to the CBI and transferred her case to Mumbai, saying that ‘courts in Gujarat could not deliver justice to her.’
Over the years, the courts have convicted dozens of people for involvement in the riots, but some high-profile accused won bail or were exonerated.
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