India’s top court cancels early release of gang rape convicts
India’s Supreme Court on Monday cancelled the early release of 11 men convicted of rape and murder during the 2002 communal riots in the western state of Gujarat.
The top court overturned the Gujarati government’s decision last year to free the men, convicted in 2008, and ordered that they be sent back to prison within two weeks. They were convicted of the gang rape of a Muslim woman, Bilkis Bano, who was pregnant at the time, and the murder of seven of her family members, including her three-year-old daughter, during deadly communal riots in Gujarat. The men were sentenced to life in prison.
However, in August 2022 the Gujarati government granted remission of their sentences, triggering a massive outcry across India. The victim’s family, human rights activists, and the opposition criticized the decision and multiple petitions were filed in the Supreme Court, including one initiated by the victim. She argued that the convicts’ premature release had “shaken the conscience of society.”
Handing down its judgment on Monday, the Supreme Court argued that the Gujarati government had no jurisdiction to rule on the convicts’ plea. It said that since the trial of the case had been transferred to Maharashtra’s capital of Mumbai and the sentence handed down there, the matter of early release fell within the jurisdiction of the Maharashtra state government. It also said, according to Bloomberg, that the Gujarati executive order commuting the sentences was “passed by usurping the power.”
The bench of Justices BV Nagarathna and Ujjal Bhuyan had initially reserved judgment in the case in October last year. Delivering Monday’s verdict, the judges observed that remission of sentence has to be viewed alongside the “rights of victims” and the idea of justice. “A woman deserves respect howsoever low she is regarded in the society or whichever faith she follows,” Justice Nagarathna said.
Notably, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi was the chief of Gujarat when the riots broke out. His state government was later accused of deliberately allowing the violence that left more than 1,000 people dead and thousands injured, mostly Muslims. In 2012, a Supreme Court-appointed special investigation team gave a clean slate to 64 people, including Modi, saying there was “no prosecutable evidence” against them.
The probe was carried out on the petition of Zakia Jafri, the widow of former Congress party leader Ehsan Jafri who was killed during the riots. Last year, the special investigation team’s decision was upheld by the Supreme Court which dismissed allegations of “conspiracy” behind the riots.