The Supreme Court on Wednesday agreed to constitute a special bench to hear a plea against the remission of sentence of 11 convicts in the Bilkis Bano gangrape case, which also involves the killing of seven members of her family during the 2002 Gujarat riots.
A bench of Chief Justice DY Chandrachud and justices PS Narasimha and JB Pardiwala assured Bano, represented through her lawyer Shobha Gupta, that the new bench will be formed.
Gupta mentioned the matter for urgent hearing and said a new bench needs to be constituted.
”I will have a bench constituted. Will look at it this evening,” the CJI said.
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Earlier on February 7, the plea was mentioned for urgent hearing by a fresh bench and the CJI had assured Bano’s lawyer that he will set up one at the earliest.
Prior to this, the hearing on Bano’s plea could not be taken up for hearing on January 24 as the judges concerned were hearing a matter related to passive euthanasia as part of a five-judge constitution bench.
On that day, the petition was listed for hearing before a bench of justices Rastogi and CT Ravikumar.
Both justices Rastogi and Ravikumar were then busy hearing, as part of a constitution bench headed by Justice K M Joseph, the pleas seeking modification of guidelines on the execution of a ”Living Will or Advance Medical Directive” for permitting passive euthanasia.
On January 4, a bench comprising justices Ajay Rastogi and Bela M Trivedi took up the plea, including some PILs. However, Justice Trivedi recused from hearing the case without citing any reason.
Bano had moved the apex court on November 30, 2022 challenging the ”premature” release of 11 lifers by the state government, saying it has ”shaken the conscience of society”.
Besides the plea challenging the release of the convicts, the gang-rape survivor had also filed a separate petition seeking a review of the apex court’s May 13, 2022 order on a plea by a convict. The review plea was later dismissed in December last year.
All 11 convicts were granted remission by the Gujarat government and released on August 15, last year.
The victim, in her pending writ petition, has said the state government passed a ”mechanical order” completely ignoring the requirement of law as laid down by the Supreme Court.
”The en-masse premature release of the convicts in the much talked about case of Bilkis Bano has shaken the conscience of the society and resulted in a number of agitations across the country,” she has said in the plea.
Referring to past verdicts, the plea said en-masse remissions are not permissible and, moreover, such a relief cannot be sought or granted as a matter of right without examining the case of each convict individually based on their peculiar facts and role played by them in the crime.
”The present writ petition challenging the decision of the state/ central government granting remission to all the 11 convicts and releasing them prematurely in one of the most gruesome crimes of extreme inhuman violence and brutality,” it said.
The plea, which gave minute details of the crime, said Bilkis and her grown-up daughters were ”shell-shocked with this sudden development”.
”When the nation was celebrating its 76th Independence Day, all the convicts were released prematurely and were garlanded and felicitated in full public glare and sweets were circulated,” it said.
The top court is already seized of PILs filed by CPI(M) leader Subhashini Ali, Revati Laul, an independent journalist, Roop Rekha Verma, who is a former vice chancellor of the Lucknow University, and TMC MP Mahua Moitra against the release of the convicts.
Bilkis Bano was 21 years old and five months pregnant when she was gang-raped while fleeing the riots that broke out after the Godhra train burning incident. Her three-year-old daughter was among the seven family members killed.
The investigation in the case was handed over to the CBI and the trial was transferred to a Maharashtra court by the Supreme Court.
A special CBI court in Mumbai had on January 21, 2008 sentenced the 11 to life imprisonment on charges of gang-rape of Bilkis Bano and murder of seven members of her family.
Their conviction was later upheld by the Bombay High Court and the Supreme Court.
The 11 men convicted in the case walked out of the Godhra sub-jail on August 15 after the Gujarat government allowed their release under its remission policy. They had completed more than 15 years in jail.