Relatives celebrating with the 11 men after their release, upon remission by Gujarat government.
A day after 11 convicts sentenced to life imprisonment for Bilkis Bano's gangrape and the murder of seven of her family members in the 2002 Gujarat riots walked free, visuals have emerged of relatives greeting them with sweets and charan-sparsh, touching their feet for blessings, outside the Godhra jail.
The Gujarat government allowed their release under its remission policy, and the 11 men got out on Monday, having served 15 years. This is, in principle, different from recent guidelines of the Centre that such special remission not be given to rapists.
"I feel glad to be out," Radheshyam Shah, the convict whose plea paved the way for the release, told news agency PTI, "I will be able to meet my family members and begin a new life."
Bilkis Bano's husband Yakub Rasul said the family did not want to comment on the release yet. "We were not told about this... All we want to do is pray for peace of the souls of our near and dear ones who lost their lives in the riots. Every day, we remember those who were killed in the incident, including our daughter," he said.
Mr Rasul said he, his wife Bilkis, and their five sons, the eldest now 20, continue to live without a fixed address.
Bilkis Bano was 21 years old, and five months pregnant, when she was raped and her toddler daughter killed along with six others from the family on March 3, 2002. They were hiding in fields near Ahmedabad, hoping to escape the violence that erupted following the burning of a Sabarmati Express coach that killed 59 'kar sevaks' just days earlier.
Human rights lawyer Shamshad Pathan said on Monday night that a large number of convicts who have committed less heinous crimes continue to be in jails without any remission.
These 11 men were sentenced in 2008 by a special court in Mumbai, and the conviction was later upheld by the Bombay High Court.
After one of them approached the Supreme Court, it directed the Gujarat government to look into the issue as that's where the crime was committed. The government formed a committee which took a unanimous decision in favour of remission.
Rights lawyer Pathan has said that when a government takes such a decision, "the hope of the victim in the system diminishes".
The case in 2002 had led to outrage, after which the Supreme Court ordered a probe by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI). The accused were arrested in 2004. Trial began in Ahmedabad but was transferred to Mumbai after Bilkis Bano said witnesses could be harmed
The special CBI court in Mumbai on January 21, 2008, convicted 11 men on charges of conspiring to rape a pregnant woman, murder and unlawful assembly under the Indian Penal Code.
Seven other accused were acquitted for want of evidence; one died during the trial.
In its 2018 order upholding the conviction of the accused persons, the High Court set aside the acquittal of those seven persons too.
Further, the Supreme Court in 2019 directed the Gujarat government to give Rs 50 lakh as compensation, a job, and a house to Bilkis Bano.
The 11 convicts granted premature release include Jaswantbhai Nai, Govindbhai Nai, Shailesh Bhatt, Bipin Chandra Joshi, Kesarbhai Vohania, Pradeep Mordhiya, Bakabhai Vohania, Rajubhai Soni, Mitesh Bhatt, and Ramesh Chandana, besides Radheshyam Shah.