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Bilkis Bano Case: Convicts’ Whereabouts Unknown Even as SC Prepares to Hear Petitions Challenging Remission of Sentences

Meanwhile, lawyer of convicts claims Centre enabled grant of remission of sentences to 11 convicts
BILKIS BANO

An investigation by journalist Barkha Dutt’s digital news platform Mojo Story has revealed that the 11 convicts in the Bilkis Bano case, who were granted remission of sentence on August 15, 2022 and released from jail, are at present not living in their homes. Families of some convicts said they were on pilgrimage, but none provided details of their whereabouts of when they would return.

This is significant in light of the fact that the Supreme Court is hearing a petition moved by CPI (M) Member of Parliament Subhashini Ali, journalist Revathi Laul and Prof. Roop Rekha Verma, challenging the remission. Another petition has been moved by Trinmool Congress Member of Parliament Mahua Moitra. If the court overturns the decision to grant remission, the men need to be traceable so that they can be re-imprisoned.

The convicts who were granted remission are: Jaswant Nai, Govind Nai, Shailesh Bhatt, Mitesh Bhatt, Radhyesham Shah, Bipin Chandra Joshi, Kesarbhai Vohania, Bakabhai Vohania, Rajubhai Soni, Pradeep Mordhiya, and Ramesh Chandana. They are all residents of Randhikpur village located in Daud district of Gujarat. They were all known to Bilkis Bano and her family; while some were neighbours, others did business with her family.

The Mojo Story team went to the homes of seven of the eleven convicts, and found that they were not at home. While there was a lock on the door of the home of brothers - Mithilesh and Shailesh Bhatt, the family of Radheshyam Shah said that he was on a yatra (religious pilgrimage) in Rajasthan and they did not know when he will be back. Similarly, the family of brothers Kesarbhai Vohania and Bakabhai Vohania also said that they were out of town and it wasn’t known when they would return. The family of Jaswant Nai and Goving Nai refused to say where the brothers had gone or when they were expected to return.

A shopkeeper in Randhikpur village told Mojo Story, “They (the released convicts) are not here. They haven’t been around since after the release.” Another shopkeeper whose shop is located next to the home of one of the convicts, said, “I open my shop at 7 A.M, and down my shutters at 7 P.M. I have not seen him even once,” and speculated, “He must have gone into hiding.”

Lawyer counters allegations

But Rishi Malhotra, the lawyer for the convicts, denied that the men had gone into hiding, telling Mojo Story, “They are absolutely not underground. They have no reason to do so.” He reiterated, “They are in touch with me. They are in their villages. They have no intention to flee.”

Now it is important to note here that legally, the convicts are well within their rights to travel freely, but their absence becomes a cause for concern given the petition challenging the grant of remission. The petition is likely to be heard on September 9.

But Bilkis Bano’s lawyer Shobha Gupta says, “We have not seen a copy of the remission order. We don’t know if any conditions have been placed.” Therefore, it is not known if they are permitted to leave the country. But Advocate Malhotra reiterated that the convicts were well within their rights to leave the village and travel.

Advocate Malhotra also dismissed Subhashini Ali’s petition as “purely speculative”, and questioned her locus standi.

He further made a questionable choice of words when he said that Bilkis Bano had “happily accepted the compensation paid to her.” The sheer inhumanity of the statement is stark, and speaks volumes about how little respect is shown to a woman who has survived such a harrowing ordeal.

But the real shocker came when he revealed that the Central government had approved the grant of remission. Barkha Dutt asked him, “Are you aware that under the rules, the Central government has to give its approval? Was it taken?” To this he responded saying, “Absolutely. It was taken under Section 435 CrPC.” When Dutt asked him to confirm the same, he said, “I’m making this statement with full responsibility – the Central government’s concurrence, as required by law, was taken.”

This revelation puts the Centre squarely in the dock, especially in wake of the Prime Minister’s impassioned plea on Independence Day, to respect women… a plea made on the same day that Bilkis Bano case convicts walked out of jail.

Activists raise concerns

Meanwhile, Subhashini Ali raised concerns reminding people of the State’s alleged complicity in protecting the rapists in the Hathras case. When Barkha Dutt reminded her that the local BJP MLA had dismissed allegations against the convicts calling them “Sanskari Brahmins”, Ali pointed out, “The way the law should be implemented is being subverted in our country. Today the caste and community of those who are committee of those who are committing the crime and those who are the victims, that is becoming the basis on which justice is being done.”

“The ground is quite fertile for the subversion of justice,” said women’s rights activist Zakia Soman of the Bharat Muslim Mahila Andolan (BMMA). She questioned the grounds for the remission, “I have nothing against remission per se. But remission to mass murderers, rapists and those who have carried out crimes against humanity?” She further said, “It appears that there is an ecosystem of subversion of justice and it is evident from the opacity of this whole matter.

Brief background of the case

During the communal violence that engulfed Gujarat in February- March 2002, many people turned on their own neighbours and acquaintances. The eleven men who attacked Bilkis Bano and her family on March 3, 2002, were all residents of her village and known to her. In the particularly brutal attack, 14 members of her family were killed, including Bano’s two-and-a-half-year-old daughter whose head was smashed on a rock! Bano, who was over five months pregnant, was gang raped.

After Bano approached the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), the Supreme Court ordered a probe by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI). The accused were arrested in 2004 and the trial originally began in Ahmedabad. However, Bano expressed concerns about witness intimidation and evidence tampering and the case was transferred to Mumbai in August 2004. After a tortuous legal journey, the men were convicted by a special CBI court in January 2008. In 2017, the High Court upheld their conviction.

But Radheshyam Shah moved court for sentence remission. But the Gujarat High Court dismissed his plea stating the appropriate government to consider his plea under sections 432 and 433 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, was Maharashtra and not Gujarat. Then, Shah moved Supreme Court which ruled in May that Gujarat was the appropriate state to examine his plea.

A committee was formed to look into the plea for remission and according to Panchmahals collector Sujal Mayatra it “took a unanimous decision in favour of remission of all the 11 convicts in the case.” Then an NDTV investigation revealed that at least five people on the Advisory Committee that recommended the release are allegedly connected to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Citing an official document that lists the members of the advisory committee, NDTV said it included two BJP MLAs, a member of the BJP state executive committee and two others, who are also linked to the party.

In fact, BJP MLA from Godhra CK Raulji, who was one of the Committee members, told the Indian Express, “It is possible that they (the convicts) might have been fixed in the case due to their past family activities. When such riots take place, it happens that those who are not involved are named. But I don’t know if they committed the crime, we decided (on remission) based on their behaviour.” He further said, “We asked the jailer and learnt that their behaviour was good in the prison…also (some of the convicts) are Brahmins. They have good ‘sanskaar’ (values).”

Courtesy: Sabrang India

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