The Bombay High Court on Thursday upheld the life sentence of 11 people convicted for raping Bilkis Bano, a 19-year-old pregnant woman and brutally murdering 14 of her relatives including her mother, sister and three-year-old daughter. The Court, however, rejected Central Bureau of Investigation’s plea to put three of the convicts to death. The High Court also set aside trial court’s order acquitting six people including five cops for tampering evidence.

Among the many horrors of 2002 Gujarat riots, the case of Bilkis Bano stands out for its sheer scale of barbarism. On the fateful day of March 2002 violence engulfed most of the central part of the state following attack on Sabarmati Express that left 59 Karsevaks dead.

Who is Bilkis?

Bano along with 17 of her kins was moving in a truck struggling to find refuge at Randhikpur village in Dahod district when a mob of 35 armed  people confronted them. In next one hour, 14 were murdered and  Bano was raped by three from her own village — Govind Nai, Jaswant Nai and Naresh Kumar. Even her three year old daughter was not spared, she was smashed to death by one of the attackers. Bano was left for dead, when she regained consciousness she found herself lying naked among corpses. She  took refuge with an Adivasi family in the hills.

Fight for justice?

Soon began her fight for justice. She had filed a complaint with the police accusing 14 men of rape, murder and rioting. On March 2003, the judicial magistrate closed the case for want of witnesses. Bilkis then approached the National Human Rights Commission, and even petitioned the Supreme Court. In December 2003, the apex court ordered a CBI probe into the matter. In January 2004, the central agency arrested all the accused named in Bano’s complaint. It later emerged that local policemen had buried some of her relatives’ bodies with salt to speed up decomposition. In August 2004, the apex court shifted the case to Maharashtra following a plea by Bano who said that conditions are hostile for fair trial in the state.

Sharing her plight during the trial, Bilkis 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.”

In January 2008, a trial court in  Mumbai passed verdict and convicted 13 of  criminal conspiracy murder and rape. 11 were awarded life imprisonment. 11 convicts- Jaswant Nai, Govind Nai, Shailesh Bhatt, Radhyesham Bhagwan Das Shah, Bipin Chandra Joshi, Kesarbhai Vohania, Pradeep Mordhiya, Bakabhai Vohania, Rajubhai Soni, Mitesh Bhatt and Ramesh Chandana were held guilty of murder, gang rape and raping a pregnant woman. The convicts had challenged their conviction in the Bombay  High Court. The CBI also approached the court challenging the acquittal of five Gujarat cops and state hospital doctors for tampering with evidence. The Central agency  also sought death penalty for three of the accused citing it as rarest of rare case.