Coming down heavily on Gujarat government’s lenient stand in the Bilkis Bano case, the Supreme Court said it was on “thin ice” as far as the grant of premature remission release of the convicts was concerned.
The apex court is hearing a series of petitions on the untimely release of the men convicted for raping Bilkis Bano and slaughtering her family during the 2002 riots.
“The convicts’ death penalty was commuted to life imprisonment. How could they be released after serving 14 years in such a situation? Why are other prisoners not given the relief of release? Why were these culprits selectively given the benefit of the policy in this case?” asked the bench of Justices BV Nagarathna and Ujjal Bhuyan.
“How far this rule — giving a chance to hardened criminals to reform — by releasing them after 14 years is being applied to other prisoners? Why is the policy being applied selectively? Opportunity to reform and reintegrate should be given to all. How far is this being implemented? Why are our prisons overflowing? Give us data,” the court said.
The court also questioned on what basis the Jail Advisory Committee was formed for Bilkis convicts and why the opinion of the Godhra court was sought since the trial was not conducted there.
The 11 men released on Independence Day last year were sentenced by a court in Maharashtra. The judge who found them guilty had also given a negative response to the state’s question on whether the convicts should be released.
The hearing in the case was shifted from Gujarat to Maharashtra as it was felt that a fair trial would not be possible in a state.
On behalf of the Gujarat government, Additional Solicitor General SV Raju said it was difficult to answer the court’s queries in general. He, however, told the court that a case was pending in the Supreme Court, in which all the states had to give detailed information.
The convicts, he said, had been released according to the law. Since they were convicted in 2008, they had to be considered under the 1992 policy.
The convicts were released on basis of an outdated policy, consulting a panel that included men linked to the ruling BJP, after the top court asked the state to take a call on the plea of a single convict.
In the last hearing, the bench had questioned an earlier order of the Supreme Court in the case. The court asked how the previous order was passed on a PIL (Public Interest Litigation) and it should have been an appeal against the order of the Bombay High Court.
Bilkis Bano’s lawyer Shobha Gupta said the Gujarat government’s decision on the release of the convicts was wrong.
“The Maharashtra state was not heard in this matter. The Centre has not even been made a party in this… the Supreme Court’s order was only in relation to the application of convict Radheshyam, while the Gujarat government gave exemption to all 11 convicts,” she said.
Convict Radheysham Shah had moved the Supreme Court seeking remission on the ground that he had completed 15 years and 4 months in jail. The court had asked the Gujarat government to look into the matter and decide within two months whether he could be granted remission.
In response, the Gujarat government had released all the convicts.
The members of the panel that took the call had justified their decision calling the men ‘sanskari’ (cultured) Brahmins who had already served 14 years in prison and displayed good behaviour.
Bilkis Bano has contended that she was not notified about the convicts’ release. Her petition will be heard on August 24.