A group of 134 former civil servants on Saturday urged the Supreme Court to rectify the Gujarat government’s “horrendously wrong decision” of releasing all 11 men convicted of rape and murder in the Bilkis Bano case.
As India had celebrated its 75th Independence anniversary on August 15, the men walked out of the gates of a prison in Godhra to the cheers of their supporters after the state government approved their application under its remission policy.
The men had gangraped Bano in a village near Ahmedabad on March 3, 2002, during the riots in Gujarat. She was 19 and pregnant at the time. Fourteen members of her family were also killed in the violence, including her three-year-old daughter whose head was smashed on the ground by the perpetrators.
The signatories to the letter by the by the Constitutional Conduct Group to the chief justice include former civil servants Najeeb Jung, Wajahat Habibullah, Harsh Mander, Julio Ribeiro, Aruna Roy, G Balachandhran, Rachel Chatterjee, Nitin Desai, HS Gujral and Meena Gupta.
In the letter, the former bureaucrats said that they are “deeply distressed” by the Gujarat government’s decision.
“The story of Bilkis Bano is, as you know, a story of immense courage and persistence,” it said. “It is a remarkable story of courage that this battered and bruised young woman, hiding from her tormentors, managed to seek justice from the courts.”
The group said that the accused persons were “influential” and so, the case had to be transferred from Gujarat to a special court of the Central Bureau of Investigation in Mumbai to ensure a fair trial.
“The case was a rare one because not only were the rapists and murderers punished, but so, too, were the policemen and doctors who tried to tamper with and erase the evidence to protect the accused and cover up the crime,” they said.
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One of the convicts, Radheshyam Shah, had approached the Supreme Court for remission after serving 14 years in prison. In May, the Supreme Court asked the Gujarat government to decide on the application after which it formed a panel to look into the matter. The panel recommended that the convicts be released.
On this, the former civil servants said that going by the history of the case and the collusion of the Gujarat government officials with the perpetrators, this matter should have been dealt with differently.
Citing a 2015 judgement of a Constitution bench, the group said that the Maharashtra government should have heard the remission plea as the conviction in the Bilkis Bano case took place in that state.
“We consider it unfortunate that the Constitution bench precedent laid down in V Sriharan’s case [of December 2015] was not followed in the Radheshyam Shah judgement of May 13,” the letter added.
The group also questioned why the Supreme Court directed the Gujarat government to consider the remission plea within a short period of two months.
“We are puzzled about why the Supreme Court saw the matter as so urgent that a decision had to be taken within two months, as also by the Supreme Court ordering that the case should be examined as per Gujarat’s 1992 remission policy and not its current one,” it said.
The group added that the Gujarat government was obligated to ascertain how the release of the 11 men would impact the lives of Bano and her family members.
“Bilkis has reportedly changed homes some 20 times over these years, because of threats to her life,” the former civil servants added. “With the celebrated release of the convicts from jail, the trauma, suffering and vulnerability to harm for Bilkis will be significantly heightened.”
The Constitutional Conduct Group said that the decision will have a “chilling impact” not just on Bano, her family and her supporters but also on the “safety of all women in India”.
“We urge you to rescind the order of remission passed by the Gujarat government and send the 11 persons convicted of gang rape and murder back to jail to serve out their life sentence,” the letter said.