Home Ministry signed off on the early release of the 11 convicts, the Gujarat government told Supreme Court. In an October 17 affidavit, the state said the 11 convicts were released on account of their "good behaviour" and not as part of the 'Azadi ka Amrit Mahotsav' celebrations for the country's 75th Independence Day.
Considering the Gujarat government's "very bulky" reply, the Supreme Court gave CPI (M) leader Suhasini Ali—she along with two others have challenged the release—time till November 29 to file her counter-affidavit.
Gujarat government had filed its reply on a plea that challenged the premature release of 11 persons convicted for gangraping Bilkis Bano and murdering members of her family during the 2002 Godhra Riots in Gujarat.
A perusal of the 477 page-reply reveals details of the decision-making process undertaken after the 11 convicts applied for early release in February 2021. The affidavit further revealed how the 11 convicts enjoyed paroles, and furloughs and were released despite negative opinions, and in one case – an outstanding criminal charge.
Home Ministry nod on early release
The Ministry of Home Affairs signed off the premature release of all 11 convicts, the Gujarat government told Supreme Court. A decision was taken to release the prisoners since they had already spent 14 years in prison and "their behavior (behind bars) was found to be good".
The state considered the proposal filed by the 11 convicts under its 1992 state policy in accordance with Supreme Court's May 2022 order and their release has nothing to do with 'Azadi ka Amrit Mahotsav celebrations', the state government added.
CBI, Special Court opposed the release,
The state government's affidavit reveals that when the 11 convicts applied for early release, opinions were sought from several authorities: Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), Special CBI Court, Mumbai where the trial took place, Dahod's Superintendent of Police, and the Collector and District Magistrate, Jail Superintendent Godhra Sub-Jail, Jail Advisory Committee, Gujarat's Director General of Police (Prisons), Ministry of Home Affairs (because the offence was probed by a central investigation agency).
The affidavit revealed that all but the CBI and the Special Court recommended early release.
The CBI said the offences committed were "heinous, grave and serious" and thus the convicts cannot be released prematurely, and "no leniency" must be shown.
In a common opinion for the 11 convicts, Special CBI Judge Anand Yawalkar observed that in this case all the convicted accused were found guilty of rape and murder of innocent people. The judge pointed out that the accused did not have enmity with Bano nor were they related to her in any way. "The crime was committed only on the ground that the victim belonged to a particular religion", the judge said. "In this case, even minor and pregnant women were not spared. This is the worst form of hate crime and crime against humanity. It affects the consciousness of society. Aggrieved of this crime is society at large," he added.
The judge further observed that here, Maharashtra's policy on early release would apply since the 11 convicts were tried in Mumbai. And as per that policy, the 11 convicts—who have been awarded a "double life sentence"—should complete the minimum punishment of 28 years before being considered for release, he said.
The affidavit suggests that the victim or her family is also expected to be consulted on such an application. However, Bilkis Bano's opinion was not sought after in 10 of the 11 cases.
The local police sought Bano's opinion on Radheshyam Bhagwandas Shah's application since the two live in the same village. In fact, Shah was released despite several authorities recommending against it.
Dahod's Superintendent of Police in his letter to the jail advisory committee recommended against the release after noting Bano's concern that Shah and his accomplices could commit serious crimes. The committee however permitted Shah's release even after one of its members—Sessions Judge, Godhra—warned the "possibility of peace being disturbed" since Bano and Shah's family lived in the same village.
Convicts enjoyed parole, furlough of more than 1000 days
Gujarat government's affidavit reveals that 10 of the 11 convicts enjoyed more than 1000 days of leave on the pretext of parole and furloughs. 58-year-old Rameshbhai Chandana, Rajubhai Soni (58), and Pradeep Modhiya (55), spent more than 1000 days out on parole plus another few hundred days on furlough.
In all cases, four years were also "set off" against their jail term to accommodate the time they spent in jail as an undertrial between January 2004, the year of their arrest, to January 2008, when the trial concluded and they were sentenced to life imprisonment.
Parole is when a prisoner is released temporarily, or for a special reason, or permanently before the completion of his sentence on the promise of good behaviour. Parole is French for the term 'je donne ma parole – 'I give my word.'. Parole is a reformatory and progressive measure of correctional services.
A furlough is a brief conditional release from prison often awarded to long-term prisoners.
In many instances, the convicts who were out on "leave" were often recorded as reporting back to prison as late as a day to four days, but were left off with just a warning. In fact, while he was out on parole, an FIR was filed against Mitesh Chimanlal Bhatt for sexual molestation and criminal intimidation. The chargesheet has been filed and the trial is going on before a Dahod court.
Despite this, Bhatt was not only allowed parole and furlough privileges but was also released on August 15 for "good behaviour".
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