Early Release of Bilkis Bano Convicts Day #1Early Release of Bilkis Bano Gangrape Convicts
A Bench comprising Justice K.M. Joseph and B.V. Nagarathna heard the challenge to the early release of the 11 men convicted of gangraping Ms. Bilkis Bano and murdering 14 of her family members. On March 27th, 2023 the Bench Ordered the State of Gujarat to submit files containing the reasons behind the State government’s decision to release the convicts.
Today, though Additional Solicitor Gener S.V. Raju brought the files to Court, he stated that the Union would be witholding them by claiming Executive Privilege. Further, the Bench gave him time till Friday (April 21st) to let the Union decide whether they would be filing a review petition against the March 27th Order.
During the Gujarat riots in March 2002, Ms. Bano and her family were fleeing from their home in Radhikpur village to Chapparwad village. However, before reaching they were ambushed by a group of men who gangraped Ms. Bano and murdered 14 of her family members including her infant daughter.
Ms. Bano approached the Supreme Court and in December 2003 the Court order the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) to investigate her allegations. The case was transferred to a special CBI Court in Bombay and in 2008 the Court imposed life sentences on 11 of the accused.
In May 2022, the SC Ordered the Gujarat State government to consider a request for remission made by one of the 11 convicts, under the 1992 remission policy. In August 2022, the Gujarat government granted the early release of all 11 convicts under the 1992 policy and publicly stated that they were released on ‘good behaviour’. However, this claim has been widely contested. Many allegations have been made claiming that many of the convicts violated their parole, made death sentences against Ms. Bano and her family, and had pending criminal cases against them for crimes committed while they were out on parole.
Ms. Bano and a host of other petitioners challenged the early release of the 11 convicts. They claimed that the Gujarat government should never have released them under the 1992 policy. The gravity of the offence should preclude any early release and further, none of the convicts had served the minimum sentence required to be considered under the 1992 policy.
Bench interrogates respondents on delays in written and oral submissions
Despite ordering the parties to begin arguments today in the last hearing, the advocates for the convicts claimed that they had only just received the files and requested time before they made their arguments. They claimed that the documents were extremely voluminous as they were over 1100 pages. However, the petitioners immediately pushed against this argument, stating that most of the files were merely repetitions of the same facts and material.
ASG S.V. Raju also claimed that that he had only received the files that morning and would require time to peruse them. The Bench was irate at the repeated delays, stating that each convict and respondent party was appearing and giving a new reason which would result in the case never being heard. Justice Nagarathna noted that they were aware of the strategy that was being adopted here.
Justice Joseph requested the ASG to submit the relevant files as per the Bench’s March 27th Order. However, the ASG stated that, while he had the files in the Courtroom with him, he had instructions to claim executive privilege. Further, he said he had instructions to file a review petition against the March 27th Order. However, he would later amend this statement to say that the Union was ‘pondering’ whether they would file a review petition and that he would have an answer by Friday.
The Bench was incredulous in response to this submission. They asked how the Union could wait until the day of the hearing and wait for over three weeks before informing the Court of this development. They added that the Union was duty bound to submit the files and that the Bench was within their rights to hold the Union and the State of Gujarat in contempt. However, the Bench gave the Union leeway till Friday to decide if they will file a review and stressed that the Bench was not circumventing the rights of the Union.
States’ reasoning for remission will be the deciding factor in this case
Justice K.M. Joseph repeatedly stated that the reasoning contained in the files to justify the remission will be what decides this case. Referring to Eperu Sudhakar v State of Andhra Pradesh (2006) he informed the parties that the Gujarat government will have to demonstrate that they applied their mind to the remission requests of each convict. This includes considering the gravity of the offence, which the Bench emphasised was immense.
Sr. Adv. Dr. A.M. Singhvi, representing the petitioners, brought up some initial points of debate. On the gravity of the offence, he stated that this was possibly the most barbaric instance of violence he had encountered. Further, the CBI Special Court Judge who convicted the accused along with the Special Prosecutor had both expressed their objection to the early release of the 11 convicts.
One of the counsels for the respondents attempted to refer to the 1992 policy and argue that all it required was a finding of ‘good behaviour’ to remit a sentence. However, he was promptly cut off by an advocate (who was not visible on the stream) who asked how that could have been a reason when they had criminal charges against them for offences committed while they we out on parole.
The Bench listed the case for hearing next on May 2nd, 2023.