Bombay High Court convicts 19 in Bilkis Bano rape case
On Thursday, Bombay High Court overturned the acquittal of two doctors and five policemen while upholding the life sentence of 19 people for gang-rape, murder and suppression of evidence
In possibly the first and the only conviction of a rape-in-riot case, Bombay High Court on Thursday upheld the conviction of life sentence given to the 19 accused.
She was 19 and was five-months pregnant when post-Godhra riots broke out in Gujarat in February-end in 2002. On March 3, she and 14 of her family members boarded a truck in search of a safe sanctuary. Instead, the truck was attacked by rioters from her own village Randhikpur and 14 of her family members were killed.
Bilkis Bano claimed to have regained consciousness after several hours and found herself lying naked in the midst of dead bodies. Her two-year-old daughter had been snatched from her and her head smashed on a stone.
In her chilling testimony she said, “I found myself naked. I saw dead bodies of my family members lying around. I got frightened. I looked around for some cloth to cover myself. I found my petticoat... I was carrying fear in my heart. I felt that I was saved by God. I went sitting and squatting up the hill. As I proceeded, I saw the dead body of (my cousin) Shamim’s newborn daughter. Many dead bodies were there. I did not try to know whose dead bodies were lying there. I stayed at the top of the hillock the entire day and night…”
She found refuge with an Adivasi family and approached Limkhedpur Police Station to lodge a complaint. Police predictably refused to lodge her complaint and threatened that if she persisted, she would be administered an injection in the hospital that would take care of her.
But the illiterate teenager, who found refuge in a camp at Godhra, recovered from her trauma and decided to approach the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) and the Supreme Court, which in 2004 ordered a CBI inquiry into the case.
CBI arrested the accused and exhumed half a dozen dead bodies which had been buried the same night by the rioters who had put bags of salt to ensure that the bodies decompose fast. But apparently due to moisture in the soil, the salt ended up preserving the dead bodies.
Threats followed and Bilkis Bano was forced to change her residence 20 times in as many months. She eventually petitioned the Supreme Court for transferring the case outside Gujarat. The Supreme Court shifted the case out to Mumbai.
In 2008, the trial court convicted 11 of the accused while letting off two doctors and six policemen accused of complicity and attempts to destroy evidence and manipulate records.
The CBI prayed for capital punishment for three of the accused, namely Jaswant Nai, Govind Nai and Sailesh Bhatt, who were found guilty of raping Bilkis Bano, her mother and two sisters and killing her two-year-old daughter. But the high court turned down the plea while confirming the life sentence. In the process, it also overturned the Gujarat High Court’s acquittal of some of the accused.
In a statement issued after the high court’s ruling on Thursday, the braveheart Bilkis, as she is being hailed, stated, “My rights, as a human being, as a citizen, woman and mother were violated in the most brutal manner, but I have trusted the democratic institutions of our country. Now my family and I feel we can begin to lead our lives again, free of fear…”