In a much-anticipated verdict, the Bombay High Court on Thursday rejected a CBI plea seeking the death sentence for three of the 11 convicts in the 15-year-old gang rape case of Bilkis Bano, who was 19-years-old and pregnant at the time of the crime.
In its plea before the court in 2016, the CBI had said that this fell under the category of 'rarest of rare' cases and the life term awarded by a lower court to three of the prime accused -- Govind Nai, Sailesh Bhat and Jaswant Nai -- should be enhanced to death penalty.
A division bench comprising of Justice Vijaya Tahilramani and Justice Mridula Bhatkar, also set aside the acquittal of five policemen in the same case by a trial court, pertaining to the Gujarat carnage after the Godhra train burning incident of February 27, 2002.
Accepting the Central Bureau of Investigation plea, it further directed the agency to launch a fresh probe against the cops who were acquitted earlier.
The CBI said that according to the evidence, the three prime accused had gang raped the (then) five-month pregnant Bilkis Yakub Rasool, her mother and her sister.
Bhat had also snatched Bilkis Bano's three-year-old daughter, and pounded her head with a stone, resulting in instant death, the CBI said, seeking death penalties for all three to "send out a stern message" to the society.
Bano and her husband Yakub on Thursday hailed the verdict and expressed satisfaction saying that justice has been finally done to them.
The horrifying incidents occurred in Randhikpur village near Dahod on March 3, 2002, at the height of the Gujarat riots following the Godhra train burning, when Bilkis Bano and around a dozen of her family members were attacked by a riotous mob, mostly comprising the local villagers. Many of those attacked were killed.
Only Bilkis Bano and two other relatives, Saddam and Husain, managed to survive the attacks and escape the mob fury, while her mother, sister, minor daughter and other close relatives were killed.
With this verdict, Justice Tahilramani and Justice Bhatkar have upheld the life sentence awarded to all the 12 convicts (one of whom is now dead).
The court also accepted the CBI plea to quash the acquittal of five Gujarat policemen and two medicos accused in the case.
The policemen - charged with tampering of evidences by fudging documents and compromising the inquest panchnama (diary) in the case - had been acquitted by a trial court earlier in January 2008.
The same trial court had also found guilty and convicted a total of 12 other accused sentencing them to life imprisonment, which has now been upheld by the Bombay High Court.
The 12 convicts, including one who passed away sometime ago, had appealed against the life sentence, while the CBI had appealed for enhancing the lifers for three accused to death sentence.
The trial court in Mumbai had slapped life imprisonment on Govind Nai, Sailesh Bhat, Jaswant Nai, Bakabhai Vohania, Radheshyam Shah, Bipinchandra Joshi, Kesarbhai Vohania and Pradeep Mordhiya.
Following Bano's appeal in the Supreme Court, the case was transferred from Gujarat to Maharashtra amidst apprehensions that key witnesses may be intimidated or influenced.
"I am very grateful that this verdict delivered by the honourable judges, has yet again, vindicated my truth, and upheld my faith in the judiciary," Bano said in a statement issued through her lawyer, welcoming the verdict.
"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," she added.
Commenting on the quashing of the acquittal of the five policemen, Bano expressed happiness that the state and its officials, who emboldened, encouraged and protected the criminals, who destroyed the life of an entire community, "are no longer unblemished, but now stand charged with tampering of evidences".
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