The Supreme Court (SC) has done well to quash the remission orders of 11 persons convicted of rape and murder and sentenced to life in the 2002 Bilkis Bano case. The convicts, who were released from prison in August 2022, will need to return to jail within two weeks and serve the rest of their sentence in prison. The reprieve enjoyed by these men, who were publicly felicitated in Gujarat on their release, was a blot on the justice system and cast a shadow even on the formidable record of the SC, which had ensured a fair closure for many riot victims — the apex court had monitored the investigation and trial in nine of the 2002 Gujarat riots cases.
At one level, the judgment was on technical grounds. Justices BV Nagarathna and Ujjal Bhuyan ruled on Monday that the Gujarat government was not the appropriate authority to pass the orders and that remission could be considered only by the government of the state where the trial was held. The trial in Bilkis Bano was held in Maharashtra after it was shifted out of Gujarat on the orders of the SC. A CBI court in 2008 held 13 persons guilty of raping Bano, her mother and three other women, and killing seven of her family members, including her three-year-old daughter; 11 of the guilty were sentenced to life, which was upheld later by the Bombay high court. One of the convicts pleaded early remission before the SC in 2022 on the grounds that he had served 15 years of imprisonment. He hid the fact that the Gujarat high court had asked the petitioner to plead remission in Maharashtra and the court there had given its opinion on it, from the SC, which considered the plea and passed it to the Gujarat government for action. On Independence Day (August 15, 2022), four months ahead of assembly elections in the state, 11 of the convicts were set free by the Gujarat government. In its Monday order, the SC said the remission was obtained through ‘fraud’. Clearly, due diligence was compromised by the government and the previous bench of the SC itself. Remissions are not unusual in the case of life convicts, but they are rarely (if ever) extended to people convicted of heinous crimes such as murder and rape. The accused can now approach the Maharashtra government, but at this stage, the state should not further her ordeal. Bano and her family have been brave and relentless in pursuing justice — twice over. That should stay.
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