Bombay High Court on Thursday upheld the life sentence of 11 convicts in the 2002 gangrape case of a pregnant woman named Bilkis Bano and the murder of eight members of her family as they tried to flee a riot-torn village. It set aside the acquittal of seven persons, including doctors and policemen, and convicted them for tampering with evidence in the case.
The high court also dismissed an appeal by the CBI to enhance punishment from life sentence to death for three convicts Jaswant Nai, Govind Nai and one other but allowed the CBI plea against the acquittal of seven other accused.
Bilkis in a statement from Gujarat welcomed the verdict. "I am grateful that this verdict delivered by the honorable Judges, has, yet again, vindicated my truth, and upheld my faith in the judiciary. My rights, as a human being, as a citizen, woman, and mother were violated in the most brutal manner, but I have trusted in the democratic institutions of our country. Now, my family and I feel we can begin to lead our lives again, free of fear,'' she said on Thursday.
Bilkis Bano's family was attacked by a mob at Randhikpur village near Ahemadabad during the post-Godhra riots on March 3, 2002. Eight members of the family were killed, including four women and four children, while six went missing. Bilkis was gang-raped even while she was visibly pregnant.
On January 21, 2008, a special trial court sentenced 11 persons to life imprisonment in the case. The court had convicted Jaswant Nai, Govind Nai, Shailesh Bhatt, Radhyesham Bhagwan Das Shah, Bipin Chandra Joshi, Kesarbhai Vohania, Pradeep Mordhiya, Bakabhai Vohania, Rajubhai Soni, Mitesh Bhatt and Ramesh Chandana. They were held guilty of murder, gang rape and raping a pregnant woman.
The trial court had sentenced head constable Somabhai Gori of the Limkheda police station to three year imprisonment for framing false records and refusing to lodge Bilkis Bano's first complaint. He had by then spent almost four years in jail and is since dead, said the CBI.
The CBI had sought death penalty even before the trial court for Jaswant Nai, Govind Nai and Shailesh Bhatt, who were charged with raping Bilkis. Bhatt was the man who killed her 3-year-old child in a pre planned attack in the wake of a bandh to protest the Godhra train burning incident.
In October 2016, the CBI had stated that the depraved act of gang raping a pregnant woman and multiple murders, including an infant and a tiny tot, amounted to the rarest of rare case, and pleaded for death sentence+ for three of the convicts in the case.
The CBI had asked the HC to consider motive, manner of commission, the gravity and the helplessness of the victims.
CBI counsel Hiten Venegaonkar submitted that in the present case the motive was to "harm and terrorize the members of minority community by attacking, murdering and committing rape on the defenceless," and that brutality of the crimes was proved as those killed included a three year old, a ten year old and a 12-year-old too.
He said, "Bilkis Bano and her mother were gang raped in front of each other... It is not disputed that persons from one particular community were assaulted, murdered and raped."
These factors, according to CBI constituted "aggravating factors" meriting capital punishment.
What Bilkis Bano said after Bombay HC judgement:
Through all of you, friends in the media, I wish to say to all my fellow Indian citizens, my fellow Gujaratis, my fellow Muslims, and to women everywhere - I am grateful that this verdict delivered by the Honorable Judges, has, yet again, vindicated my truth, and upheld my faith in the judiciary.
My rights, as a human being, as a citizen, woman, and mother were violated in the most brutal manner, but I have trusted in the democratic institutions of our country. Now, my family and I feel we can begin to lead our lives again, free of fear.
I am happy that the state officials who emboldened, encouraged, and protected the criminals who destroyed life of an entire community, are no longer unblemished, but stand charged with tampering of evidence. For officers of the state, whose sworn duty it is to protect citizens and enable justice, this should be their great moral shame, to bear forever.
This verdict means that justice prevails.
Journeys like mine cannot be made alone. I am deeply grateful both to the CBI and to my lawyer who represented me during this appeal process before the Bombay high court.