Supreme Court judge Justice K.M. Joseph said that it was “more than obvious” that the men released early from life imprisonment for gangraping Bilkis Bano and murdering her family during the 2002 Gujarat riots were raising a maze of procedural objections in successive court hearings to avoid his Bench.
Justice Joseph noted that time was running out for him, with his retirement now just days away.
“I think it should be more than clear to you what is happening… So, the problem for me is I am retiring on June 16, but my last working day is May 19 [last working day before court closes for summer vacation till July 2]… It is obvious they do not want us to hear the matter. It is more than obvious,” Justice Joseph, accompanied on the Bench by Justice B.V. Nagarathna, addressed advocate Shobha Gupta, Ms. Bano’s counsel.
The oral remark came after the courtroom rang with submissions made by the lawyers for the 11 released convicts, who claimed that they were not served notice of the case. They sought an adjournment by at least two weeks to file their counter affidavits to Ms. Bano’s petition challenging the decision of the State of Gujarat, endorsed by the Centre, to remit their life sentences.
“It is more than clear to all of us what is happening,” Ms. Gupta told the judge.
“Then it is all the more important that they should not succeed… Such bamboo-slinging tactics should not be used in court,” senior advocate Indira Jaising addressed the Bench.
Advocate Vrinda Grover said that the released convicts “should not be allowed to interrupt justice in this way”.
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“We have given them two weeks to file their counter. The next possible date of hearing is May 17. These people are already out of jail. If there is merit in your case, you will succeed. If there is no merit, you will not succeed… The matter would have taken a different turn if it had come to my court earlier…” Justice Joseph said. The convicts were released on August 15, 2022.
Ms. Gupta said that the petition was filed in November 2022. It came up for hearing before a Bench of Justices Ajay Rastogi and Bela Trivedi on December 13. Justice Trivedi had recused himself. There was then a hiatus of over three months during which Ms. Gupta said that she had repeatedly mentioned the case before the Chief Justice of India for a listing. The case was finally referred to Justices Joseph and Nagarathna and came up for hearing on March 27. The Bench had issued notice on the same day and directed the government to be ready with the official files concerning the remission.
On April 18, both the Union and Gujarat governments said that they may seek a review against the March 27 order in which the court had asked them to be “ready with the files”. The government had even hinted that they would claim privilege over the remission records. Meanwhile, the released convicts had raised similar objections regarding the service of notice and sought adjournment to file their counter affidavits.
On Tuesday, the government did a full U-turn, this time saying that it was neither filing a review nor pressing for privilege.
At one point, the two judges even offered to hear the case during the summer vacation, in the days ahead of the retirement of Justice Joseph on June 16. But Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, appearing for both the Union and the State of Gujarat, refused the suggestion. He explained that the government could not make an “exception” in any cases.
“You may take it up now, but not during the vacation… It is not just in this matter… If I make an exception, I will have to keep on making exceptions,” Mr. Mehta told the Bench.
One of the lawyers for the released men asked why the petitioner was in such a “tearing hurry”. Another said that the notice in the case was issued by the court only recently in March.
“I have kept quiet till now, don’t make me say things. You knew this case was to be heard today… This is not fair… You are not only lawyers appearing for the parties, but also officers of the court. Please do not forget the given role you have… You may win or lose a case, but you have more at stake,” Justice Joseph told the lawyer.
The court listed the case in July.