In a thought-provoking session at the Supreme Court, a crucial question arose: are all convicts equal when it comes to privileges? The court delved into this complex matter as it considered a challenge to the remission granted to 11 men sentenced to life imprisonment for the heinous gang-rape of Bilkis Bano and the murder of her family during the 2002 Gujarat riots.
A bench of justices BV Nagarathna and Ujjal Bhuyan underscored that the central issue at hand is whether the Gujarat government exercised its power to grant remission correctly, taking into account all relevant factors. As the arguments unfolded, the bench emphasized that the convicts in the Bilkis Bano case cannot demand parity with those serving life sentences who were not granted parole or furlough during their incarceration.
Senior advocate Sidharth Luthra, representing one of the convicts, emphasized the challenges of long-term incarceration and the agonizing wait faced by their families. He stressed the importance of the remission policy, guided by the principle of reformation.
“Life behind bars is very difficult. They have been incarcerated for at least 15 years. Their families have waited for them outside. They have been waiting for years to lead a reformed life. Reformation is the key,” argued Luthra.
In response, the bench made a crucial point: “But, in this case, they had the privilege to come out for several days, several times. They were not languishing all this while. There are some convicts who are more privileged as opposed to others. That’s the point we are trying to make.”
When Luthra tried to emphasize a specific point about a convict, the bench interjected to emphasize that “every convict is not the same.”
Records revealed that some of the convicts in the case were granted parole for over 1,100 days during their sentence.
The bench made it clear that the challenge before the court is not the validity of the remission policy itself but the manner in which it was implemented. “Nobody is questioning the correctness of the remission policy. The question is the exercise of this power and how this policy was implemented,” remarked the bench.
Luthra emphasized that remission doesn’t overturn a court judgment but is an exercise of executive authority under a defined procedure that promotes the theory of rehabilitation. “These people have suffered. They were incarcerated for 15 years. It is not the overturning of the judgment but the exercise of executive power to shorten the prison term. Remission does not interfere with a court order on jail term but allows a prisoner to walk free after spending at least 14 years behind bars if his conduct has been good and there are chances of his reformation,” he argued.
The court adjourned the hearing, with the arguments on behalf of other convicts set to continue on September 20.
The case revolves around the release of 11 men convicted of gang-raping Bilkis Bano and murdering her family during the 2002 Gujarat riots. The release sparked public outrage, leading to PILs filed in the Supreme Court. Bilkis Bano herself approached the Supreme Court against the Gujarat government’s decision to release the convicts, citing adverse opinions from the trial judge and the Central Bureau of Investigation, and the heinous nature of the crime.
The Gujarat government, in response, claimed that it followed the May 2022 Supreme Court judgment, which endorsed the procedure under the 1992 remission policy, placing no bar on the eligibility of rapists for premature release, unlike the subsequent 2014 policy that prohibits such release.