In a strong criticism, Bilkis Bano's lawyer Advocate Shobha Gupta termed the decision of the Gujarat Government to allow the premature release of the eleven convicts who were sentenced to double life imprisonment for multiple murders and gang-rapes in the Bilkis Bano case as "devastating".
"I am at a loss of words when I have to explain this... I find it(remission granted to convicts) threatening. It's threatening, it's devastating, it's disappointing. It is difficult for a person who is raped and who lost 14 of her family members to fight for justice. Still, Bilkis collected courage and she could put up a fight for 17 years. So Bilkis became an example for other rape victims that you can get justice ultimately even if it is a long and difficult fight. In 2017, we were celebrating that the conviction has been upheld and that she got the highest ever compensation granted to a rape victim. And within five years, she's back to worrying for her safety, as her rapists are now roaming free", she said.
Speaking in an interview with Manu Sebastian, the Managing Editor of LiveLaw, Shobha Gupta said that the decision will demoralize other women who are fighting for justice against rape. She shared an instance of one of her clients, a rape survivor, asking her what was the point of fighting a legal battle if the criminal can come back to her after a few years!
No application of mind by the Centre and the State Government
Gupta said that the Central Government and the State Government took the decision ignoring the objections raised by the CBI and the Presiding Judge of the Trial Court against the premature release of the convicts. The prosecuting agency, the CBI, opposed any leniency in sentence by stating that the offences are "serious, grave and heinous".
The Presiding Judge of the trial court (Special CBI Court at Mumbai) noted his objection as follows :
"In this case all convicted accused were found guilty for rape and murder of innocent people. The accused had no enmity or any relation with the victim. The crime was committed only on the ground that the victim belonged to a particular religion. In this case, even minor children and pregnant women were not spared. This is the worst form of hate crime and crime against humanity. It affects the conscience of the society. The convicted prisoners were given double life imprisonment". The judge recommended against allowing remission and opined that the convicts should serve the minimum sentence (28 years for double life imprisonment).
Gupta pointed out that the decisions of the Central Government and the State Government do not show any consideration of the objections of the CBI and the Trial Judge. The opinions given by two important stakeholders were "thrown to the dustbin". Their views were sought only in a mechanical manner to show compliance of the statutory mandate.
"Where is the consideration? Where is the application of mind? What is the point in taking the views of the prosecuting agency and the Presiding Judge if they are to be thrown to the dustbin?", she asked.
The reasons cited by the Government are that the convicts completed 14 years of sentence and that they had "good behaviour". As regards the first reason, Gupta said that the convicts were awarded double life-imprisonment and hence 14 years will not qualify as the minimum term for remission. Also, the claim of "good behaviour" is not correct. She said that there are materials to show that there was no "good behaviour" as claimed. She also pointed out that one of the convicts was booked twice in separate cases for molestation of women while he was out on parole. And even if assuming that the condition of "good behaviour" was satisfied, the heinous nature of crime disentitles them to remission.
"Judicial notice has been taken on the aspect that it was a communal crime. It was a hate crime against a particular community by people of a certain community. A pregnant woman was raped. Her mother was raped. Sister was raped. Her baby child murdered. Two minor sisters murdered. Two minor brothers murdered..cousins murdered. Can we not say this is a rarest of the rare case? Honestly, death penalty was the most appropriate penalty for this case", she said.
Gupta, who became visibly shaken and emotional while narrating the crime sequence, continued :
"It was not a case of enmity or some provocation. They were all neighbours. They used to buy milk from Bilkis's father. At the time of the attack, Bilkis was begging them that please see me like your daughter, your sister. Just see the nature of the crime. They were followed for three days, means somebody was hell-bent to kill them. So was the hate to a certain community in such a desperate manner that they were followed to even a forest. They were caught, brutally raped and murdered. It was a brutal murder when you're smashing a child of three years on a stone. Who does it? Can a human being do it?How can we think of granting premature release to these kind of criminals?"
She pointed out that all the convicts enjoyed liberal parole periods and they were in and out. All of them enjoyed over 1000 days of parole during the prison term over different spells.
"See how much liberty and leniency have been granted to them. And I am amazed, today Bilkis is worrying for her and hiding herself. Why because her rapists are out on roads".
"What kind of message we are sending? Are you okay with this kind of society having all these people roaming around where a sense of security is given to the criminals "don't worry, you would be out in a few years""?