Best Bakery Case (Articles from Newspapers)
New York Times
Rediff on Net
Times of India
Foul Play (EDITORIAL)
The Indian Express
Mumbai, July 07: Zahira Shaikh, a key witness who turned hostile in the sensational Best Bakery massacre case, today demanded the trial in the case be held outside Gujarat and accused a BJP MLA from Vadodara of threatening her, a charge denied by the legislator.
She told reporters
here she had approached a non-governmental organisation-- Citizens
for Justice and Peace -- for help to file a petition in a higher
court for a fresh trial outside the state.
The three member team of National Human Rights Commission will reach
Varodara today to probe into the Best Bakery scandal. The team will
carry out a second time investigation into the matter.
MUMBAI/ GANDHINAGAR, July 7. — Zahira
Shaikh, a key witness who turned hostile in the Best Bakery massacre
case, today demanded that the trial be held outside Gujarat, and
alleged that a BJP MLA from Vadodara was threatening her, a charge
denied by the legislator. She told reporters in Mumbai that she had
approached an NGO for help to file a petition in a higher court for
a fresh trial outside the state. “Ms Madhu Shrivastava, an MLA from
Vadodara, used to threaten me over the mobile phone,” Zahira
alleged. — SNS & PTI
Best Bakery victim in city for Justice
I first met
Zahira Habibullah Shaikh on March 9 last year, then again on March
22 when she deposed before Justice J S Verma of the National Human
Rights Commission and then on May 11, 2002, when she voiced
helplessness before the Concerned Citizens Tribunal.
The writer is the editor of Communalism Combat
World Briefing: Asia
A Muslim woman who recanted her testimony that Hindu neighbors burned members of her family said threats from Hindu nationalist politicians in Gujarat caused her and her family to change their testimony, an allegation denied by those accused. The woman, Zahira Sheikh, 20, was the key witness in a trial of 21 Hindus accused of burning 14 people alive in March 2002 during riots that killed 1,000 people, most of them Muslims. After the recantations, all 21 were acquitted. Hari Kumar (NYT) http://www.nytimes.com/2003/07/08/international/asia/08BRIE4.html
Witness Zahira: Hold trial outside Gujarat
Mumbai, July 7: The Best Bakery carnage case of March 1, 2002 in Baroda may take a new twist with prime complainant Zahira Sheikh now demanding that the trial be reopened in the Mumbai high court, or at least held outside Gujarat.
Talking to reporters here on Monday, she named BJP leader Madhukar Srivastava as the principal accused and has said that she will be able to tell the truth if the trial is held afresh outside the state of Gujarat.
"We want to reopen the trial to get justice," she said at the press conference. "In Gujarat I met lawyers and social workers but they demanded money to the tune of Rs 4 lakhs to support me. I come from a poor family and cannot afford such an amount. As a result I was neglected by the so-called helpers in Gujarat." She said she had been threatened by BJP leader Madhukar Srivastava outside the premises of the Gujarat court. "He threatened to kill me if I named him and his accomplices in the court. What would you do if the police, the lawyers and the judiciary are all with the accused? Whatever I said before the court was false as I was under tremendous pressure. I did not want to go against the accused as my family was in danger."
Zahira Sheikh, 19, one of the victims on the night of March 1, 2002, is being supported by Mumbai-based NGO Citizens for Justice and Peace. This organisation will file a petition in the Gujarat high court on behalf of her and others urging the court to direct that a retrial in the Best Bakery case be held outside Gujarat in view of the extreme political pressures in that state. Over a week ago, the additional sessions judge in Baroda had acquitted all the accused named by Zahira Sheikh, the key witness in the case.
Ms Sheikh said that she had also been threatened by another Congress leader, Chandrakant Bhakt, who told her that her attempts to get justice would fail as "everyone is corrupt and even the judiciary had been purchased by the accused." Recalling the incident of March 1, 2002, she said, "An anti-Muslim mob surrounded the Best Bakery and set it on fire. My family and I were on the first floor of the bakery and the rioters kept throwing petrol to burn us."
She said that she had named Jayanti, Mahesh, Munna, Thakkar and others as accused in her statement to the police, but had retracted it after being threatened by Madhukar Srivastava.
The Best Bakery carnage was among 18 such incidents that occurred within a period of 12 hours on March 1, 2002. This incident itself resulted in 14 people being burnt to death. These incidents were a result of the failure of the state administration to protect the lives and property of its citizens.
The press conference was attended by the secretary of Citizens for Justice and Peace Teesta Setalvad, theatre personality Alyque Padamsee, columnist Anil Dharker, lyricist Javed Akhtar and the editor of Communalism Combat Javed Anand.
Ms Setalvad said,
"It’s the darker side of our system that even the state public
prosecutor, who is supposed to meet the victims, did not meet Ms
Sheikh or her family. Ms Sheikh is the prime complainant in this
case and the public prosecutor should have listened to her
statement. But he never bothered to meet her."
By Kalpana Sharma
MUMBAI JULY 7. In a dramatic reversal of her court testimony, Zahira Habibullah Shaikh, the 19-year-old girl who survived the night of March 1, 2003, when a mob attacked and killed 14 persons in Best Bakery, Vadodara in Gujarat, said today: "What I said in court was not true. I said it after pressure was put on me. In fact, I recognise all those who attacked us that night".
Her testimony to the contrary before the fast track court in Vadodara had led to the acquittal of all the 21 accused on June 27.
Ms. Shaikh told a press conference convened by the Citizens for Justice and Peace (CJP) here that she had asked the group to reopen her case and have it retried. Although she had testified to the National Human Rights Commission and many other groups last year about what happened on March 1, 2003, and she and the surviving members of her family had given more than half-a-dozen statements to police, when she appeared in the courtroom of the Sessions Judge H. U. Mahida on May 17 and was asked whether she recognised any of the accused, she said she did not.
Asked why she had changed her stance now, Ms. Shaikh said, "I was accused of taking money. I could not stand being maligned. I want to reopen the case because we didn't get justice." She narrated how, ever since she received the summons from the Special Court, she had been threatened on her mobile phone and told that if she testified, her family would be killed and she would be killed on her way to court. She said that a BJP MLA was behind her when she entered the courtroom and alleged that he too had threatened her.
Ms. Shaikh said she had asked a number
of local lawyers to help her but all of them demanded money, some as
much as Rs. 4 lakhs. "No one was supporting us. In Gujarat, everyone
is theirs, they want to suppress our case, they are all with them,"
she said, referring to the people she has accused. Advocate Mihir
Desai said that the CJP had decided to take up the case and was
considering a number of different strategies. "The judiciary is one
institution in which there is still some faith. We want to exploit
that," he said. The group, which has extended financial support to
Ms. Shaikh and her family and ensured that they do not need to
return to Vadodara, would not appeal against the Mahida judgment.
Instead it would ask for a new trial ideally outside Gujarat. Even
if it took place in Gujarat, they would ask for a Special Public
Now daughter breaks the ‘fearful’ silence
Says BJP MLA, his Cong cousin threatened them, asks for a re-trial outside state
Mumbai, July 7: Just days after her mother came out and told The Indian Express that she had lied in court ‘‘trembling with fear,’’ in the Best Bakery case, Zaheera Sheikh alleged that a BJP MLA and a Congress councillor were among those who threatened them to change their testimony. And she was ready to tell the truth if there was a re-trial, preferably outside Gujarat.
When contacted, BJP’s Madhu Shrivastava and his cousin Chandrakant Shrivastava both denied the charges (see box).
But Madhu Shrivastava, a regular fixture in the trial was the one who accompanied Zaheera to the court on the day of her testimony. He is on record as saying that he welcomed the acquittal verdict claiming that the wrong people were framed.
Zaheera’s statement comes as a team from the National Human Rights Commission is scheduled to reach Vadodara tomorrow. NHRC chief Justice A S Anand had called the Best Bakery verdict a ‘‘miscarriage of justice.’’
Zaheera, 19, had gone into hiding after she turned hostile during the case proceedings in a fast-track court in Vadodara which acquitted all the 21 accused. Fourteen people were killed in the Best Bakery massacre, nine of them were the Sheikhs’ relatives.
After The Indian Express story, Zaheera was moved to Mumbai by the Citizens for Justice and Peace, a local social activist group. Also present were her mother and her two brothers.
Hours before she addressed the press, flanked by the group’s members, Zaheera told The Indian Express: ‘‘Amma sab sahi boli hain, hum tab dar gaye the, magar ab sachh bolenge, ab to saath bhi mil gaya hai, aur hum saath hain (My mother has spoken the truth, we were frightened then. Now we will speak the truth, now we have got the support).’’
When asked about allegations that she received money, she said: ‘‘I can’t bear such an accusation. Everyone says that we took money.’’
Zaheera has come a long way from her days more than a year ago in Vadodara where she had waged a lone battle from Day One of the riots: trying to get medical support for the family on March 2, as the wounded and dead were being brought to Vadodara’s SSG Hospital from Best Bakery.
And thereafter it has been depositions before numerous commissions, changing houses and finally moving to the one built in Ektanagar by the riot relief committee.
Now that they are in Mumbai, both mother and daughter say they feel safer. Said Sehrunissa: ‘‘I got very scared once I spoke out but here I feel safer.’’
‘I don’t know who Zaheera is’
BJP MLA Madhu Shrivastava: ‘‘I
don’t know who Zaheera is. This is an attempt by some Congress
leaders to damage me politically, an attempt by anti-Gujaratis to
tarnish the state image.’’
Chandrakant Shrivastava, Madhu’s cousin and
Vadodara Congress councillor: ‘‘I don’t know who Zaheera
is. I only know I rescued a Muslim family. I have never spoken to
the family. Nor did they approach me.’’
Gujarat Cong spokesman Arvind Sanghvi:
Declined comment. ‘‘The PCC won’t react if a Congressman from a
distant place is named by someone.’’
• Himanshu Vyas, Cong in-charge of Vadodara: ‘‘The party will inquire and take action if the allegations are proved correct.’’
Mumbai, July 7: Zahira Sheikh, who retracted her initial statement in court and turned the Best Bakery massacre case upside down, has announced that she will appeal for a retrial, though not in Gujarat.
“I don’t trust anything, anybody there, and I am too scared to go there now. Our lives are in danger,” Zahira said here today, flanked by ad guru Alyque Padamsee and lyricist Javed Akhtar.
On March 1 last year, 12 Muslims and two Hindus were burnt to death at the Vadodara bakery her father owned. The massacre — two days after the torching of the Sabarmati Express in Godhra, the flashpoint of the riots — forced the 19-year-old to go into hiding along with the surviving members of her family.
Today, Zahira broke her silence on the political pressure put on her to turn hostile in court. She publicly blamed Madhu Srivastava, the BJP MLA from Hanuman Tekri in Vadodara, for threatening her.
“Madhu Srivastava asked me to lie in court,” she said. “There were threats all the time, those who called repeatedly told us that my mother, too, would be killed if I didn’t go back on my statement to the police. I didn’t want any more of my people to die. There was no way I could have told the truth in court.”
The bakery case, the first of many concerning mostly Muslim victims of the Gujarat riots, fell on its face after a fast track court in Vadodara recently ruled in favour of the 21 accused. The court, in a very defensive statement, had said there was no evidence to call for action against the accused.
The acquittal came after Zahira — the main witness — refused to identify the 21 accused. Of the 73 witnesses, 39 had turned hostile following Zahira. Instead of the accused, the witnesses blamed police for lodging “false cases against those who saved the lives of many Muslims”.
But Zahira, whose case will now also be fought by the Citizens for Justice and Peace, an NGO formed after the Gujarat riots, contradicted her statement all over again. “The 21 accused are the same ones who had killed all those people in the bakery,” she said.
Asked if the police, as alleged by many witnesses, had picked up the wrong persons, she said: “No, they are the ones. If the case comes for retrial, I will identify each one of them.”
More than anything, it was humanity that Zahira seemed to have lost faith in. “Even my own people (Muslims) didn’t stand up for us, we were completely alone,” she said. “There were threats from everywhere but when we approached Muslim lawyers to fight for us, they asked for Rs 4 lakh.” She added that she had to rely on a government prosecutor who asked her just one question at the fag end of the trial: “Do you want to recognise any of the accused in court?”
Zahira and her mother’s arrival in Mumbai — they will not be available to the media from now on — has put paid to the National Human Rights Commission’s attempts to seek a fresh deposition from them tomorrow. A team from the rights panel is already in Ahmedabad.
“I will send a statement from here,” Zahira said. “Anyway, nothing happened earlier when the commission took our statements.”
The Best Bakery case has become a rallying point for some of Mumbai’s most well-known personalities. “We are here to extend our support and help in the family’s rehabilitation,” Padamsee said. “We cannot keep quiet any longer. What will happen if those who have promised to protect turn persecutors. We have to get more people to voice our dissent against what is happening.”
the entire edifice of democracy will crumble if no one can provide
justice, Akhtar said: “It is obvious that there have been no serious
attempts at meting out justice to those who suffered in the riots.
It is time we stood up to get counted.”
Best Bakery case
MUMBAI/ GANDHINAGAR, July 7. — Zahira
Shaikh, a key witness who turned hostile in the Best Bakery massacre
case, today demanded that the trial be held outside Gujarat, and
alleged that a BJP MLA from Vadodara was threatening her, a charge
denied by the legislator. She told reporters in Mumbai that she had
approached an NGO for help to file a petition in a higher court for
a fresh trial outside the state. “Ms Madhu Shrivastava, an MLA from
Vadodara, used to threaten me over the mobile phone,” Zahira
alleged. — SNS & PTI
MUMBAI, July 7 (IANS)
A key witness to communal violence in Gujarat on
Monday claimed she was intimidated by Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)
and Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) leaders to retract her testimony in
a crucial case. Zahira Sheikh, whose relatives were among 14 people
killed when a mob burnt down the Best Bakery in Vadodara last year,
was speaking at the Press Club here.
Key witness in the Best Bakery case Zahira Sheikh and her mother Seherunnisa have demanded a retrial of the case outside Gujarat, preferably in Mumbai.
At a press conference the two held in Mumbai on Monday afternoon, they said they had turned hostile in the fast-track court in Vadodara during the trial because they had been threatened by BJP MLA Madhu Shrivastava and others.
Zahira and her mother (the only survivors in the fire that burned down their family business — the Best Bakery in Vadodara — and killed 14 relatives and employees in the post-Godhra riots) said they would never get justice in Gujarat as the public prosecutor, the police and politicians were all protecting the accused who owed allegiance to the ruling BJP.
Zahira and her mother were accompanied at the press conference by Javed Akhtar, Teesta Setalvad, Mihir Desai, Anil Dharker and other members of an NGO, the Citizens for Justice and Peace (CJP), which has announced free legal assistance to Zahira and other victims of the communal riots in Gujarat.
A Vadodara court had recently acquitted all 21 accused, some of them BJP and VHP members, for lack of evidence when Zahira, a key witness in the case, had retracted her statements and 'failed' to identify the culprits in court. While announcing the acquittal, the court had censured the police for inadequate investigation and poor evidence-gathering.
But on Monday, 19-year-old Zahira had gathered enough courage to admit that she had been threatened. "I am too scared to return to Gujarat and want to stay in Mumbai. I want the case to be re-opened and re-tried in Mumbai. The authorities in Vadodara are all hand-in-glove and I don't see justice being done to my family," she said.
Even people from her own Muslim community had not wanted to help her when it came to testifying in court. "Some of them even demanded Rs 4 lakh from my family for legal expenses and they wanted a share of our riot relief. Apart from this, my family and I were constantly pressured by the accused to retract our statements in the court. Since we did not get any help and were under threat, I chose not to recognise the accused," Zahira admitted.
The CJP has said it will take up Zahira's cause and ensure the case reaches its logical conclusion.
Meanwhile, a two-member National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) team is here in an effort to re-open the Best Bakery case. The team will visit Vadodara on Tuesday to examine the records of the court proceedings and to try meeting the victims' families and witnesses in the case.
However, the state government has not yet reacted to either the judgement or the NHRC's visit. A senior official told HT that the government had not yet finalised its stand on the issue. "We are still studying the judgement," he said.
Zahira wants justice. Too much to ask?
NOW: ‘I want a retrial’
Zahira now wants the case to be retried in Mumbai. The authorities in Gujarat are in cahoots, she says
Then: ‘I chose not to recognise the accused’
Under threat, and with no help from her own people, she says she had no option
NEXT: ‘We’ll ensure the case reaches the logical end’
NGO CJP says it will take up Zahira’s cause. It might move the Supreme Court
POSSIBILITIES: ‘Retrial is possible, but rare’
CJP says such a
retrial is theoretically and constitutionally valid. The SC has the
powers to do it
complainant breaks silence
AHMEDABAD: Zahira Sheikh, the complaint in the Best Bakery massacre case who turned hostile in the court leading to the acquittal of all the 21 accused, has finally broken her silence. The dimunitive girl, who emerged after weeks of absence from Gujarat to address the media in Mumbai on Monday, later told TNN over phone that she would like to have a retrial of the case and that too outside Gujarat.
Zahira was accompanied by Teesta Setalwad of Citizens for Justice and Peace at the press conference held on the eve of the NHRC team's visit to Vadodara to examine the case papers in the case. The young girl, whose deposition in the case turned the legal battle upside down, said it was only out of fear that she did not pick up the courage to identify the killers before the court.
Explaining that she had left for Basti in Uttar Pradesh after the court hearing, she said she had come back to "clear my name from allegations that I had taken money to turn hostile in the court". She said she was being threatened by the local BJP MLA Madhu Shrivastava, Vadodara councillor Chandrakant Shrivastava alias Bhattu and another witness Lal Mohammed that they would "kill her family".
She said "I would not have given up the fight if a single person from my community had stood by me in that crisis, but even the members of the relief committee ditched me when I needed them the most". “Main akeli ladki kahan kis kis se ladti (how could a single girl like me fought al those people)", she said.
Zahira said Lal Mohammed, the witness who told the court that the accused had in fact saved the Muslim families from the mob on the day of the massacre on March 1 last year, was a close associate of the Shrivastava's and had been constantly giving out threats to her. "I was so scared that when I stood up in the court, I could not tell the truth, I also saw a lot of Bajrang Dal people in the court on that day and that scared me even more".
She said she did not have faith in the police, lawyers, government or the courts of Gujarat and wanted the trial to be reopened in Mumbai where she now has the support of some independent groups. "Main to badnami ka daag dhone ke liye bahar aayi hun kyonki maine kisise paisa nahin liya hai, aur ab mera dar bhi door ho gaya hai"(I have come out to clear my name from allegations that I have taken money to change my stand, and I am now not afraid anymore), she said.
Zahira said she
does not plan to return to Gujarat anymore and would like to
continue her battle in Mumbai. However, Teesta Setalwad, told TNN
over phone that various legal options were being examined in the
case, including the possibility of having a retrial outside Gujarat.
"We are not calling for an appeal in the case because that would
suggest that we have accepted the evidence before the court when the
world knows that that evidence was all bogus and manipulated, we
want a reopening of the case and a retrial outside Gujarat so that
nobody can influence the process of justice".
The move comes soon after the Gujarat sessions court acquitted 21 people, who were accused in the rioting and killing of 12 people inside the bakery on March 1, 2002.
During the trial, 35 of the 60 witnesses, including Zehraunissa, retracted statements they had made to police identifying the accused in the court.
Following the retraction, Additional Sessions Judge Hemantsinh U Mahida acquitted all the accused citing lack of evidence.
"I was threatened by Bharatiya Janata Party leader Madhu Shrivastava. He told me that if I say the truth in the court my mother and other family members would be killed. So, I lied in the court because of fear and these accused were set off free," Zehraunissa told the press in Mumbai
"I want justice. There was no one in Vadodra to fight my case. The lawyer's were demanding Rs 400,000 from me to fight the case in Vadodra and I had no money to pay. Moreover, Shrivastava used to call me regularly over the phone and threatened me. He also told me that everyone in the court are his men and nobody will believe me. And therefore under pressure I lied," she said.
Her case has been taken by a Non Governmental Organisation, Citizens for Justice and Peace. The NGO has people like Javed Akhtar, the noted lyricist, adman Alque Padamese and Teesta Setalvad, joint editor of Communalism Combat.
"Zehra has lost her family members and the criminals are roaming freely. Nobody has been booked under Prevention of Terrorism Act. The whole attitude of the Narendra Modi government is so cynical. It is shocking to see that this is happening in a civilised society," said Javed Akhtar.
Zehra, her mother, Sehrunissa and two brothers, Naeemullah and Nafeesullah, have moved base to Mumbai.
Asked if they feel the justice would be done to Zehra's family considering that Srikrishna Commission report was never implemented in Maharashtra and most of the riots accused in Mumbai riots of 1992-93 were roaming free, Teesta said, "We have to be hopeful. We have great faith in judiciary. Moreover, unlike Mumbai the situation is so bad in Gujarat that two communities are completely alienated from each other."
By Manas Dasgupta
VADODARA July 8. A three-member fact-finding team of the National Human Rights Commission is expected to submit its report on the controversial Best Bakery riot case to the chairman within a week.
The team, which arrived here this morning from Ahmedabad to study the documents related to the case, was mobbed by delegations making contradictory representations, human rights activists demanding a reopening of the case and the relatives of the accused calling for honouring the judgment of the fast track court.
Talking to presspersons, the NHRC registrar and team leader, Ajit Bharihoke, said the team had come to Gujarat to collect "facts" and that it would submit its report "within a week".
A terse "no comment" was his reply to a question whether he favoured re-opening the case or why the NHRC did not intervene when witnesses were turning hostile during the trial in the fast track court.
During his stay in the city, the team called on the district judge, J.C. Upadhyaya, the Police Commissioner, Sudhir Sinha, and talked to the police officers who investigated the case as well as the Government pleader accused of playing a "partisan role" during the trial. A delegation of the People's Union of Civil Liberties, supporting the stand of the main complainant, Zahira Sheikh, urged the NHRC to reopen the case in a court outside Gujarat for a fair trial.
The residents of Hanuman Tekri, where the bakery was located, most of whom were relatives of the accused, alleged that all the 21 accused had been "wrongly implicated" in the case and demanded that the NHRC and the Government honour the verdict of the fast track court. Incidentally, all the accused, after acquittal, are said to have disappeared.
A delegation of lawyers, who had formed a "Jan Raksha Samiti", took exception to the NHRC's fresh inquiry into the case. Its convener, Avdhoot Suman, said that if the NHRC was keen on reopening the case, it should reopen many such cases since 1950, which were also criticised to be "miscarriage of justice".
Pointing out that it could set a wrong precedent, he said the court verdicts were given on the evidences and witnesses presented before it and not on any extraneous issues.
Some local Muslim leaders also submitted a memorandum to the team demanding the immediate arrest of Madhu Srivastava, BJP MLA from neighbouring Waghodia, and his brother and Congress member of the Vadodara municipal corporation, Chandrakant Srivastava, and the owner of a garage opposite the bakery, Lal Mohammad — who was also a key witness but like Zahira he turned hostile, and some others.
Both the Srivastava brothers, whose respective constituencies include the Hanuman Tekri locality, however, have denied the charges against them. Claiming that he had no role in the case and that did not "escort" Zahira Sheikh the day she was give her testimony in the fast track court, Mr. Madhu Srivastava said he was being "unnecessarily maligned" and promised to move the Supreme Court to clear his name.
Mr. Chandrakant Srivastava, accused of providing "shelter" to the "now underground accused", claimed that instead of helping the accused, he was trying to ensure justice to the victims. He claimed that he was the first to report the fire in the bakery to the police and helped many of the members of the minority community escape. The BJP State Government, which has taken a dim view of the NHRC fact-finding mission, is yet to make up its mind on appealing to the higher court against the fast track court's judgment.
ONLY IN THE EXPRESS
Look who new Gujarat
govt lawyer is
Vadodara, July 8: The state government today appointed as public pleader an advocate who wants the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) chairman tried for contempt of court for calling the Best Bakery massacre case a ‘‘miscarriage of justice.’’
NHRC chairman A S Anand had described the case so a few days after all suspects in the case were acquitted by the fast-track court of judge H U Mahida on June 27.
Advocate Avadhoot Suman and others had then submitted an application to Mahida, saying Anand’s comment amounted to an insult of the judge’s honour and dignity and was an attempt to undermine the judiciary. They urged Mahida to move Gujarat High Court to have the contemner punished.
On Monday, Additional Sessions Judge C K Solanki — officiating in the fast-track court for Mahida, who is on leave — rejected the application, saying it was not correct.
Suman was appointed pleader on Tuesday, along with Jayanti Prajapati and Alpaben Shah.
Although interviews for the post were held weeks before Anand’s statement and Suman’s reaction, some lawyers regard his appointment as a reward for speaking out against the commission, which has been critical of the government’s failure to swiftly control the post-Godhra riots.
Says Kirit Bhatt, a human-rights activist, ‘‘Suman is a very competent, intelligent lawyer and a man of high integrity. But if the appointment has come as a follow-up to his petition against the NHRC chairman, it is nothing less than mockery of the administration of justice.’’
When contacted, Suman said that calling this a ‘‘reward’’ smacks of ‘‘a mean mentality.’’
He said he had applied for the post in February and attended the interview in May — well before his controversial application to Mahida. He pointed out that the two other advocates appointed pleader with him hadn’t commented against the commission.
Law Minister Ashok Bhatt said Suman’s appointment was on merit and that it was ‘‘totally wrong’’ to call it a reward for criticising Anand.
The publicity given to the National Human Rights Commission’s (NHRC’s) decision to send a team to study the Best Bakery case rings false. Something that is a routine matter is being projected as a great initiative. In fact, the acquittals in this case is a glaring instance of the NHRC’s failure to protect human rights.
Under the Act that created it — Protection of Human Rights Act, 1993 — the NHRC is empowered to “intervene in any proceedings involving any allegation of violation of human rights pending before a Court with the approval of such Court”. In exercise of this mandate, it should have appointed its own advocate in every case of this kind. Its advocates should have overseen proceedings so that the prosecution does not fail in its duties of ensuring punishment to the guilty. More so since the initial NHRC report on these riots criticised the government. It is true, of course, that conviction in cases involving mob violence is negligible and that is the main reason why it continues to recur in India.
The two basic reasons for the guilty going unpunished are, obviously, dishonest police investigations and the political clout mobsters enjoy. By and large, mob violence takes place in collusion with the police and politicians. We have grappled with the issue for decades. It is in this context that the NHRC’s role becomes crucial — it needs to emerge from its “decorative” stance and play a far more pro-active role.
The NHRC has the power to inquire into the role played by any police officer. If it finds that the police, in the course of a riot, favoured any one group, or colluded with rioters, it has the power to recommend to the government action against such officers.
If the government doesn’t take action, the NHRC has the power to approach the concerned high court or Supreme Court to direct the government to initiate action. It also has the power to inquire into the role played by political leaders in such violence.
In Gujarat, it is still not too late. The NHRC can even now appoint its own advocates in cases pending in various courts in Gujarat to ensure that the matter is properly handled. If its advocate had been involved in the Best Bakery case, it could at least have ensured that all the witnesses cited by the prosecution were examined. If the state government fails to file an appeal now, the NHRC should file one against the judgement given its overweighing public interest. If the state government does file an appeal, it should get its advocate to intervene before the high court and ensure that the judgement is set aside and the matter referred for further investigation. Since the crimes here were against society as a whole, the approach should be to secure justice for society, as well as victims. By approaching the case only in terms of ensuring justice for the victims, the police and courts are shifting the whole burden on the victim to prove the guilt of the accused. This, after all, is the duty of the state. The failure of the victim to identify the guilty is actually the failure of the police and the judicial system to punish the guilty. It is astonishing how, in this case, the police and politicians have abdicated their responsibility.
The fast track courts in Gujarat set up to try cases of communal violence, may ultimately turn out to a big handicap, as was the case in the 1984 carnage. The trials in the latter instance didn’t make much progress until the V.P. Singh government came in power in 1989.
At that point, I along with Justice R.S. Narula, former chief justice of the High Court and General J.S. Aurora, met then home minister, Mufti Mohd. Sayeed, to demand that Special Courts be constituted. The minister suggested that since this is an elaborate process, we should agree to exclusive courts — which meant that one judge would be assigned only these cases in each of the three criminal courts in Delhi— the Tis Hazari, Patiala House and Karkadooma courts. Initially, it seemed a big success. J.B. Goel, ASJ at Tis Hazari, passed conviction orders in two cases. Unfortunately he was transferred — whether this was a routine occurrence or done at someone’s behest is anybody’s guess. The judge at Patiala House, S.S. Bal, kept passing acquittal orders. During the period of the Rao government, things were so manipulated that the Tis Hazari and Karkadooma Courts were also given to Bal. Human rights lawyer Vrinda Grover analysed 126 judgements pertaining to 1984. It showed that out of 126 cases, 80 were delivered by S.S. Bal and all 80 had resulted in acquittals!
Gujarat too could witness similar attempts at manipulation. That is why it’s crucial that an agency like the NHRC play its appointed role.
The writer, a senior advocate, has been closely involved with the 1984 riot cases
came, didn’t see, didn’t do anything
Ahmedabad, July 7: BIG on hype, small on action. That summed up the first day of the two-member National Human Rights Commission team’s visit to the State. With the visit coming after sudden twists and turns in the Best Bakery case — the acquittal of all the 21 accused as well as the surfacing of the main-witness-who-turned-hostile Zaheera Sheikh in Mumbai — all eyes were on the duo who arrived in Ahmedabad on Monday morning.
The two NHRC members — Ajit Bharioke, Registrar of Law and Sudhir Chowdhary, Deputy Inspector General (Investigations) — spent the entire day cocooned in the Circuit House Annexee and apart from meeting NHRC’s special rapporteur for the State P G J Nampoothri met no other official.
The NHRC had on July 3 stated that keeping in view the seriousness of the issue involved in the order of the acquittal in the Best Bakery case, the Commission ‘‘considers it appropriate’’ to immediately depute a team to Vadodara to inspect the records of the case, examine the judgment and all the other relevant materials.
The reason that the NHRC had deputed the team to the State seemed to have been forgotten. They did go out in the afternoon to meet in-charge Chief Justice of Gujarat High Court J N Bhatt for 10 minutes. But apart from that, their only other trip out was for a spot of lunch. The national as well as local media, cellphones to their ears, pads and mikes in hand, followed the team and even waited at the State Guest House, but to no avail. No one got either a quote or a bite — the team chose to stay silent.
However, later speaking to Express Newsline over the telephone, Nampoothri said apart from paying a courtesy visit to the Chief Justice, the team did not meet any officials or authorities during the day. ‘‘I meet the two members and only chalked out the agenda for our visit to Vadodara tomorrow,’’ he said.
When asked whether they would be conducting any hearings at Vadodara, he said, ‘‘Nothing of that sort has been planned as of now.’’ Nampoothri said that though it was yet undecided, the team’s visit to Vadodara will most probably be only for a day. He refused to reveal anything further about the team’s visit to Vadodara.
State Home Secretary K Nityanandam confirmed that he had not meet the NHRC team and that he was also not scheduled to meet them.
However, in anticipation of the team’s visit to Vadodara, several riot victims and leaders of the minority community waited in Vadodara to meet the NHRC team.
‘‘Members of the Islamic Relief Committee waited in Vadodara hoping the team would arrive but later they came to know the team will only go to vadodara on Tuesday,’’ Dr Shakeel Ahmed said. ‘‘I don’t think they will accept any representations or suggestions so we want to wait and watch what they will do,’’ Dr Ahmed said.
At the Ahmedabad Circuit House although there was hype regarding the team’s visit, none of the victims or representatives of relief organisations came to meet the team.
Vadodara, July 8: “Why were they quiet all this while? Did they have to wait for Zahira to tell them that Muslim riot victims were being denied justice?” asked Hasan Nurulbhai, a Vadodara resident, on a day the National Human Rights Commission arrived to probe the Best Bakery acquittals.
Yesterday, Zahira Sheikh, the main witness, revealed how she was forced to turn hostile in court, leading to the acquittal of all 21 accused of killing 14 people in the bakery on March 1 last year.
“What do you want us to say?” Zahira’s neighbour in Ekta Nagar asked, clearly not expecting anything out of the NHRC probe. “It is difficult to trust anyone these days.”
A man who gave his name only as Zakir said: “Muslims in Gujarat and throughout the country were waiting for the verdict in the bakery case. We were very disappointed, especially when Zahira turned hostile. But now that she says she is telling the truth, why can’t there be a retrial? That is not too much to ask for, is it?’’
But the NHRC would not promise that it would ask for one. After a day of collecting documents from the police commissioner’s office, the district sessions court and sundry organisations, the commission’s team was non-committal about its future course. “We cannot say if we will ask the government to reopen the case,” said Ajit Bharioke, one of the members. The NHRC chairman, A.S. Anand, had described the June 27 acquittals as a “miscarriage of justice”.
A clutch of organisations that have little relevance to the case met the NHRC team — the Vadodara Janadhikar Samiti, fighting to uphold “the rule of law and sanctity of the courts”; the Citizens for Justice and Peace, protesting the absence of rule of law; the Gujarat Janhit Rakshak Samiti, fighting for “Gujarat’s pride to be restored” which it believes can be achieved by driving away the NHRC and burying the case; and the Anjuman-e-Bahami Relief Committee, trying hard to prove that Muslims did help Zahira.
Zahira, who said she would seek retrial, will not see the NHRC. “I spoke to them before, nothing happened.”
The families of the accused did meet the commission, only to show their contempt for it. A 250-strong mob of relatives marched from Hanuman Tekri — where the Best Bakery once stood — for the meeting.
Jaswantbhai Gohil, six of whose family members were acquitted, said: “The commission should just go back. All these 21 people were innocent, this is a travesty of justice.”
Accusing NHRC of bias for probing a case that the court had buried, Ishwarsinh Parmar said: “Even Muslims at Hanuman Tekri know that the boys were framed by the police to show that the government was also taking action against Hindus. How can the NHRC make fun of the court’s judgment saying it is incorrect?”
But an advocate closely involved in the case said: “One has just to scratch the surface to get a different version of almost everything that has been said in court.”
In the atmosphere of mistrust that rules Gujarat, where no one seems to have any credibility — not the police, not the courts and not the NHRC — Zahira’s neighbour pleaded for justice.
Affirming that some of the accused were killers, she said: “Kuch to kaide kanoon hote hain desh mein, agar court bhi nyay nahi dega to hum kahan jayenge? (There has to be rule of law in the country. If even the court cannot give us justice, where do we go?)
Statesman News Service
Mr Madhu Shrivastava, the three times BJP MLA from Vaghadiya, in the eye of the storm for allegedly “threatening” the main witnesses— though today he flatly denied it— said, “ all this is being done to defame the Modi government and is instigated by the Congress or some organisations”. He said that he had seen Ms Zaheera Sheikh, daughter of the owner of the bakery and one of the main witnesses “only in a burkha”. “I will resign from politics in case anyone can prove that I pressurised any of the witnesses.”
Mr Shrivastava wanted to know why Ms
Zaheera Sheikh had changed her statement “seven to eight times”, and
“whether she was under pressure now, or was she under pressure
Mr Avadhoot Sumant from the Vadodara Jan Adhikari Samiti said that more that 40 lawyers have signed a petition asking the fast track judge, Justice Mr HU Mahida, “to refer the matter to the High Court for initiating proceedings of contempt against the NHRC”. He said the comments of the NHRC chairman, Justice Mr AS Anand, clearly lowers the image of the court in public. The three-member team of the NHRC, consisting Mr Ajit Bharioke, Mr Sudhir Chaudhary and Mr PGJ Nampoothiri, said they had collected the police and the court records and will submit a report to the commission within a week. The records run into thousands of pages, the press was informed.
Only one witness meets
Baroda, July 8: It was just another day for the residents of Hanuman Tekri even as the National Human Rights Commission paid its much-hyped visit to Baroda.
While situation was charged at the government circuit house in Alkapuri area NHRC visit hardly made any difference to the residents of Hanuman Tekri and Ekta Nagar where Zahira Sheikh and her mother and brothers are presently staying.
Against the expectations none of the witnesses, except Lal Mohammed, met the commission members.
In fact the residents of Hanuman Tekri and Ekta Nagar claimed that had the commission members come to meet them they would have given their statements.
However, it was an important day for the BJP MLA Madhu Shrivastava and his cousin brother Chandrakant Shrivastava, who were camping at circuit house from Tuesday morning. Mr Madhu Shrivastava was busy clarifying his stand on the allegations made by Zahira Sheikh.
Mahendra Jadhav, who is one of the 21 persons acquitted by the court in the case, was not afraid of NHRC visit. Jadhav, who resides near Best Bakery in Hanuman Tekri area, said, "I am not afraid of anyone now. I have paid the price for the crime I never committed. The police arrested me because of mistaken identity. In fact, it was my brother who first rang up the police control room to inform about the incident. But after a month of the incident the police came and picked me up from my residence instead of arresting the accused whose name is also Mahendra."
He added, "had the NHRC officials come to Hanuman Tekri I would have told them how I have been pushed behind the bars for no reasons."
Jadhav has now re-started his vehicle-repairing workshop. "Now I am not bothered about what will happen. People are talking about re-opening of the case but I am not worried because I have not committed any crime."
Vinod Pandey, Jadhav’s friend, said, "Those who are talking of injustice were given any chance in the court but they lied in the court, which is sin. Now, people will not believe them because of their image." The NHRC’s visit however was normal for every resident of Hanuman Tekri.
Sana Baria residing opposite to the Best Bakery had left from his house to avoid the team. "He was here till Monday evening but someone informed that some senior officers from Delhi will come to Best Bakery and he immediately left his residence. Now he will come back only after a month or so," said a neighbour of Baria.
Sadiq Hussain another resident of Ekta Nagar where Zahira and her family members are staying said, "None of us feel like meeting any officers now. We will speak to them if they come here because we know our opinion will not make any difference."
While the reopening of the Best Bakery case can be seen as a vindication of the power of the media, the real battle begins now. On test from now on will be the resolve of the civil society in general and certain institutions in particular, who now have to ensure that the boldness shown by Ms Zaheera and her mother, in seeking justice against heavy odds, does not go waste. Powerful politicians and even the Gujarat government as such managed to create a situation where a clear-cut case of an organised and well-planned attack on the bakery during the post-Godhra violence was thrown out of the court, on the plea of insufficient evidence. As graphically pointed out by the media and substantially corroborated by the victims now, those at the receiving end of the rioting which resulted in 14 deaths of both Hindus and Muslims associated with the bakery, were forced into silence. Their initial attempt to find justice was ruthlessly crushed by interested parties who helped the culprits get away. It is a matter of shame that the constitutionally mandated National Human Rights Commission did not move the court, but only contented itself by expressing shock and dismay over the miscarriage of justice. The NHRC, under pressure from conscious sections of the democratic set-up, has since rushed a team to examine the case. Its exertions can have meaning only if the Commission, even at this stage, intervenes in a decisive manner and follows up the case in court, until the victims get at least some justice. Ms Zaheera has demanded that the case should be referred to a court outside Gujarat — this speaks volumes of how the victims of the Gujarat carnage have lost even elementary confidence in the government that rules them. Mr Narendra Modi, who has been absolutely unfazed even as evidence of its complicity with perpetrators of the carnage has mounted, needs to be forced by democratic opinion, and perhaps the central leadership of the Bharatiya Janata Party, to stop playing games with the agony of the victims. The Best Bakery case, which till now has exposed the limitations of the system as it is, can now be tuned into one which reflects its resilience and basic commitment to the Rule of Law. It is both a challenge and opportunity for all those who swear by the values that govern the democratic order per se. Over the next few days and weeks, the whole country and indeed the world will watch how genuine is the basic commitment of those who are involved in the case. To begin with, the BJP should ensure that its MLA who is alleged to have shielded the suspects, and helped their attempts to evade punishment, can no longer do this now. He, and his relative in the local Congress who is also said to have played a dubious role in the murky and shameful episode, should be made to learn a lesson which they will never forget.
From Nandini Oza
The day-long visit
of the three-member National Human Rights Commission team to
Vadodara to investigate Best Bakery case proved to be a damp squib
today, even as the report is expected in a week’s time. All the 21
accused in the case were acquitted on June 27 by a local court.
The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) team, which is taking a second look at the Best Bakery case had little to say at the end of its day's work perhaps because it couldn’t meet either the accused or the eye-witnesses.
The three-member team was expected to make a statement on two main issues — the reopening of the case and on the witnesses turning hostile.
Instead, all that the press corps got was "no comments".
There was little that the NHRC team could have done as most of the families of the 14 persons who died in the burning of the bakery have shifted elsewhere.
Also, all the 21 acquitted accused vanished from the area soon after they were released from jail.
After the day-long visit to the city, during which the NHRC team met police commissioner Sudhir Sinha and district judge J.C. Upadhyaya, among others, registrar Ajit Bharioke told the press that they had come only to examine and collect the relevant police and court records.
All the 21 accused were acquitted after the eye-witnesses, including key witness Zahira Sheikh, turned hostile. Zahira has created a stir by demanding a retrial outside Gujarat.
The NHRC team had to face hostility from Sangh Parivar allies, including a group of 40 lawyers who petitioned the district collector that the team be prevented from entering the city as that might create communal tension. The plea was, however, rejected by the collector.
This group had earlier moved a contempt of court plea against NHRC chairman justice J.S. Anand's statement that the acquittal of the 21 accused was a "miscarriage of justice".
The convenor of the Vadodara Jan Adhikar Samiti, Avdhut Suman, which moved the petition, told journalists that NHRC had no jurisdiction to reopen the Best Bakery case as the state government and the judiciary were the competent authorities in that regard.
A delegation of the Jamiyate-Ulama submitted a memorandum to the NHRC team demanding that the Best Bakery case be reopened and that the accused be tried under POTA.
The acquittal of all the 21 accused in the controversial Best Bakery case due to the shoddy investigation by the police, as per Justice H.U. Mahida’s judgment, will not have gone unheeded. Since this is a matter of concern not only for the relatives of the victims, but also for civil community at large, various legal provisions are likely to be resorted to in order to ensure justice. Especially as the main witness in the case, Zahira Shaikh, has asked for a retrial on the grounds that she’d been threatened into turning hostile.
For instance, the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) has already asked the Gujarat government to inform it of the steps taken, if any, against the judgment. In addition, it has embarked on an inspection of the records of the case in Vadodara. In the meantime, the National Commission for Minorities (NCM) has directed the government to file an appeal against the judgment in a higher court.
As an outcome, the Gujarat government has said that it might appeal against the acquittal in a high court. If it does, the same factor that rendered the prosecution helpless in the subordinate court — “not an iota of evidence” — may prove the basis on which the high court can remand the case back to the trial court and direct that further inquiries be made, or that the accused be retried or committed for trial.
Further, in all probability, it was under threat and coercion that out of the 120 witnesses named, only 73 deposed, and then, 41 of them turned hostile. Zahira Shaikh and her mother, Saharunnisa Shaikh, also stated that they had detracted from their earlier statements out of fear. The possibility remains that in due time, other witnesses may also declare that their retraction was under duress.
The Supreme Court has earlier observed that the Constitution mandates the State to accord justice to all members of the society in all facets of human activity. Contradicting this principle, the State failed in conducting a proper investigation in the trial court. Commenting on the failure of the police in doing its duty,
Justice Mahida noted, ‘‘It seems the police fabricated the statements and got them signed from the injured.’’ Besides, more than a hundred Muslims have been charged under POTA for their alleged involvement in the Godhra massacre, while no Hindu accused in the post-Godhra violence against Muslims have been charged under the Act.
The State also failed to protect the lives of its citizens. According to media reports, besides reaching the spot eight hours after the incident, the police filed the chargesheet against the 21 accused only on June 24, i.e. 115 days after the incident took place on March 1. Almost all the non-official investigation reports on the post-Godhra pogrom suggest that the riots were instigated with the support of the administration. The rejection of the NHRC appeal to the Gujarat government to transfer all riot-related cases to the CBI also pointed to the same.
Given the fact that the violation of fundamental rights and the acquittal of the accused because of shoddy investigation is in the purview of the provisions of the PIL, statutory bodies safeguarding human rights and minority rights and various NGOs, we can be hopeful that the “miscarriage of justice” will not last very long
Zahira has shown cou-rage in wanting to avenge the wrongs perpetrated up-on her family (Best Bakery witness for retrial, in Mumbai, July 8). Usually, victims are silenced with the use of money, muscle and ministerial power.
There has been much discussion on her turnaround over her statements, but keeping silent grants legitimacy to these acts of hatred. This is the right moment to break the silence and expose the culprits.
Samidha Singh, via e-mail
Zahira is lucky to have a lot of like-minded people by her side encouraging her to speak her mind and persuading the trial courts to consider a retrial. In contrast, Kanchan Mishra was not so lucky. She was abducted by a Muslim goon and forced to undergo a nikaah. With the pro-Muslim government in Patna remaining indifferent to her case, she has been left defenceless and alone.
Udita Agrawal, Delhi
After succumbing to the threats of those in power, Zahira has asked for a retrial now. Whether she gets a retrial and justice remains to be seen, but she has infused strength in the movement for justice by speaking against those who have tried to silence the voice of truth and democracy.
Deepshikha Monga, Suhail Bukhari and others, Delhi
Zahira’s request for a retrial in Mumbai will definitely expose the mafia responsible for mismanagement and miscarriage of what is known as the golden principle of human life, that is justice.
Mahesh Sharma, Delhi
TIMES NEWS NETWORK
VADODARA: The National Human Rights Commission team will give a report on its findings regarding the Best Bakery acquittal in a week’s time.
The three-man team arrived here on Tuesday to study legal documents pertaining to the case even as the judge who gave the controversial judgment on June 27 proceeded on leave.
Speaking to newspersons, Ajit Bharihoke, who is heading the team, said they would go back to the NHRC with the documents. “The commission will take a decision on the future course of action after studying these,” he said.
He said the team had collected copies of the police reports on the case. “Also, we have taken copies of the records of the trial,” he added.
Several activists and political workers gathered at the Circuit House here to meet the team. Among those present at the Circuit House were BJP MLA Madhu Shrivastav and his cousin Chandrakant Shrivastav, a Congress councillor, who have been named by the complainant Zahira Sheikh as the persons who threatened her into turning hostile in court.
Several other functionaries of the BJP and its allied organisations were also present. However, Bharihoke and the other members — PGJ Namboothiri and Sudhir Choudhary — got straight down to business without meeting any of them.
The team first went to the office of the commissioner of police and called the investigating officer PP Kanani there. The members collected documents pertaining to the case from him.
Later, the team visited the Nyaya Mandir along with commissioner of police Sudhir Sinha and met the district and sessions judge JC Upadhyay.
HU Mahida, the fast-track court judge who delivered the verdict, was on leave. He had proceeded on leave on Monday, citing “personal reasons”, sources said.
Later in the day, the team met members of several organisations. A group of lawyers also met the team and expressed their concern over the visit. “The visit has led to a lot of speculation and tension. We apprised the team about the situation,” said lawyer Avdhoot Sumant.
Residents of Hanuman Tekri, where Best Bakery was burnt down on March 1 last year, also came to the Circuit House to plead on the behalf of the 21 accused who were acquitted recently. The Gujarat Janhitrakshak Samiti submitted a memorandum against statements made by Zahira at a press conference in Mumbai on Monday.
Madhu Shrivastav threatened to sue Zahira Sheikh and her family for defamation. “This is a conspiracy against me and my party. I will sue them for maligning my image,” he said.
At the same time, NGOs and leaders of the minority community demanded the commission’s intervention in the case. Advocate MSG Shaikhjiwala said, “The whole case is a whitewash by the government. First, the investigations were not fair and then the witnesses were pressured.”
The story so far
The Best Bakery story has two beginnings. One on March 1, 2002, when 12 people were burnt alive at the bakery in the Gujarat town of Vadodara. And the second, 15 months later, when all 21 accused in the case walked free.
In those 15 months, a 19-year-old prime witness Zaheera Shiekh went from frenzied attempts to save the wounded in her family to a grim battle to seek compensation, from vowing to seek justice to appearing in court and turning retracting her statement. She then disappeared, only to surface in far away Mumbai and claim that she had been forced to lie in court.
India’s new face of survival in the face of overwhelming odds has said she will have the case reopened. She has vowed not to marry till justice is done. Zaheera, the daughter of the owner of the bakery, who witnessed her family being massacred in cold blood by a mob, lost her father, uncles, sister. Her older brother has gone mad, her younger brother is still struggling to cope.
On that fateful day
The carnage took place two days after the Sabarmati Express was set afire in Godhra, killing 59, last year. Gujarat was in flames with frenzied mobs burning down an entire minority-dominated housing society in Ahmedabad a day earlier. March 1 was also the day the Vishwa Hindu Parishad had called a nationwide bandh.
One such mob attacked Best Bakery in the Hanuman Tekary area on Dhaboi Road, owned by a Muslim, Habibullah.
Habibullah and 11 others were killed. The victims included three women and four children who were trapped in the building and five employees who were burnt alive despite rushing to the rooftop in a bid to escape. Two persons went missing and six were seriously injured. Three of those who died were Hindus. Zaheera spent the next few days running from pillar to post getting medical help for those injured.
A 1,100-page chargesheet was filed in the case against 21 accused on June 25, 2002. The charges included rioting, murder and attempt to murder among others. Trial began on May 9 this year and on May 17, Zaheera appeared in court and retracted her accusations. She said she did not know or recognise any of the accused.
After Zaheera, 35 of the 60 witnesses turned hostile and later, almost all said they had been picked by the police at random and made to sign on panchnamas. Some witnesses even said in court that the accused had in fact rescued 65 Muslims that day.
For Zaheera and her family, who, after much harassment all of last year finally got a small monetary compensation for family members killed and for the burnt-down bakery. Life during the last year has been a series depositions before commissions and looking for a permanent dwelling. They finally moved to a house in Vadodara’s Ektanagar built by the riot relief committee.
On June 27, 2003, Additional Sessions Judge H U Mahida had a date with history. He was to deliver the first judgment in the post-Godhra riot cases. As the world watched, Mahida cited lack of evidence to rule that the 21 accused were innocent. Reports say even before the ruling, a local Bharatiya Janata Party leader Madhu Srivastava, who was closely associated with the case assured the accused they would go free.
Srivastava, who now claims he does not know who Zaheera is, accompanied the girl when she deposed and turned hostile on May 17.
Now safe in Mumbai, Zaheera has claimed: "I was threatened by Madhu Shrivastava. He told me that if I say the truth in the court my mother and other family members would be killed. So, I lied in the court because of fear and these accused were set off free."
Last year, several high profile visitors to Gujarat personally heard Zaheera’s story, including Chief Election Commissioner J.M. Lyngdoh. Yet after the deposition, the frightened family was forced into hiding, with few friends on their side. It was a social activist group Citizens for Justice and Peace that moved Zaheera, her mother Sehrunissa and two brothers, Naeemullah and Nafeesullah to Mumbai.
There Zaheera broke her silence on July 6 and sought that the trial be held again outside of Gujarat.
A National Human Rights Commission team is, meanwhile, visiting Gujarat after the chairman Justice A.S. Anand described it as a "miscarriage of justice". Outraged, many the world over are waiting now to see justice done.
Zahira has been wronged; let this not happen again
The spectacle of witnesses turning hostile during a trial has, alas, become a part and parcel of the Indian legal system. But it is rare indeed when a witness plucks up the courage to explain why she was forced to change her testimony in the court. If nothing else, Zahira Sheikh deserves our sympathy and hearing for that reason alone. Ending weeks of media speculation about her whereabouts, the prime witness in the Best Bakery case ‘re-surfaced’ in Mumbai on Monday, to catalogue the threats, pressures and fears that made her not “recognise the accused” in the fast-track trial court. In a newspaper interview published earlier, Zahira’s mother had given voice to much the same sentiments. Taken together, the statements gave a shocking account of why post-riot cases in India usually end up the way they do: In a travesty of justice. Yet, conducting a ‘post-mortem’ was the least of Zahira’s purpose. She demanded that the Best Bakery case be re-opened and retried in a court outside Gujarat because the victim families had little hope of receiving justice in the state. Support for the retrial has also come from other quarters: From social and peace activists to the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC).
Compelling though this plea is on grounds of natural justice, it might not be as easy to uphold in practice. For one, the idea of retrial goes against the legal principle of ‘double jeopardy’: No accused can be tried for the same crime a second time. The retrial demand raises other concerns as well. What were these organisations doing when the trial was on? It was common knowledge well before the case started that witnesses were under tremendous pressure not to testify. During the trial, there were daily reminders in the media about witnesses turning either hostile or not turning up at all. Yet, the NHRC did practically nothing. And this when Article 12(b) of the Protection of Human Rights Act empowers it to intervene in “any allegation of violation of human rights pending before a court”. The Best Bakery case, in other words, is not just an indictment of the Modi government, but a poor reflection on a whole host of other state and civil society institutions, both within the state and without. Every instinct tells us that the “miscarriage of justice” in Zahira’s case must be corrected. Yet, a fresh trial is now no longer a matter of right but one of judicial discretion. Will the NHRC at least come forward to ensure a fairer trial in the riot cases that are still pending?
Sehrunissa Sheikh’s reasons for turning hostile indict us all
Trembling with fear, we lied in court,” admits Sehrunissa Sheikh, a week after all 21 accused in the Best Bakery case were acquitted by a fast-track trial court. How strange those words sound. Trembling with fear?
In court? Correct us if we are wrong. Isn’t a courtroom supposed to be a safe haven for the wronged, isn’t it supposed be the appointed site in a civil society where victims can air their testimonies without fear or foreboding and seek justice? Isn’t is supposed to be a forum where the fearful can claim reassurance?
If so, try explaining Sehrunissa’s narrative in The Sunday Express. In a narrative of intimidation and apprehension, she attempts to explain why she turned a hostile witness in the most high-profile trial in cases related to post-Godhra violence in Gujarat. It is difficult to comprehend it, this silence in court that resulted in the acquittal of all those accused of torching her husband’s Vadodara bakery and killing 14 persons — among them Sehrunissa’s relatives. But listen to her, and the reasons take shape. She received threats, she says, that she would be killed if she repeated in court what she had said outside: That on March 1 she and her daughter, Zaheera, heard a mob approach, that they to ran the terrace, that they recognised many among them. The threats, she adds, also came from fellow witnesses. In other words, she stood isolated not only from her attackers and their benefactors, but also from fellow witnesses. She feared. For her life. For her daughter’s life.
To understand what Sehrunissa’s words mean for our criminal justice system, remember that those legal arguments are tossed back and forth in an atmosphere surcharged with fear. Remember that the reassuring rhythm of legalese is often not carried beyond the courtroom’s hallowed precincts by victims of violence. If outside there is intimidation, beyond the safe enclave of the court also lies fear. That must be the lesson for all those who profess to be seeking justice — whether they be in the police or whether they be concerned citizens. As a host of other Gujarat riots cases proceed in court, as many other cases related to the 1984 and 1993 riots drag on, witnesses must be re-assured — with physical security and legal back-up.
Elusive For Indians in Sectarian Strife
BOMBAY -- Peering through a concrete trellis, Zahira Sheikh said, she watched a Hindu mob murder 14 relatives, neighbors and employees of her family's bakery during a night of anti-Muslim violence last year.
The 19-year-old became the star witness in one of the most high-profile trials to emerge from India's worst communal violence in a decade, but when the moment of truth arrived, she could not bring herself to speak it.
She testified -- falsely, she now says -- that she could not identify any of the attackers. The judge dismissed the charges against the 21 accused, citing insufficient evidence.
The outcome highlighted what human rights activists say is the failure of Indian authorities to hold accountable those responsible for the killings, which sullied the country's reputation as a secular democracy and left a deep reservoir of anger and fear among India's 140 million Muslims. Bloodshed in the state of Gujarat last year claimed the lives of between 1,000 and 2,000 people, most of them Muslims.
Now Sheikh, who went into hiding after her court appearance, is speaking out. At a news conference on Monday and in an interview at a hotel here this morning, she said she testified falsely after local Hindu politicians repeatedly threatened her family -- usually by calling her brother on his mobile phone -- and after concluding that prosecutors, who made no effort to meet with her before the trial, were not serious about gaining convictions.
"At this juncture, when I needed it most, there was no legal help, no moral help, and it was in that state of mind that I went to court that day," said Sheikh, a slender, strong-featured woman wearing a black robe and head scarf. "I could only see the faces of the people and the families of the people who had attacked our family."
"I was very, very scared," she recalled of her court appearance in May, when she contradicted her statements to police and human rights investigators in which she identified the attackers by name.
Like the central government, the state of Gujarat is dominated by Hindu nationalist politicians, some of whom have been accused of encouraging and even orchestrating the anti-Muslim violence, which began when a Muslim mob set fire to a train carrying Hindu nationalists on Feb. 27, 2002, killing at least 58 people.
Though many incidents of retaliatory bloodletting were witnessed by scores if not hundreds of people, the state government has yet to secure a conviction of a single accused Hindu, according to human rights groups. Muslims accused of involvement in the train attack, meanwhile, have been charged under an anti-terrorism law that has not been applied to Hindus.
"You got the feeling the judges are terrified," said Teesta Setalvad of Citizens for Justice and Peace, a human rights organization that has relocated Sheikh, her mother and two brothers to Bombay while it seeks to have the case retried in another state. "It is not a natural situation that prevails in the state of Gujarat."
Sheikh said she decided to go public with her story because she was angered by false accusations that she had been bribed to change her testimony.
State officials deny they are trying to protect Hindus from prosecution, citing, among other things, a state-level judicial inquiry into allegations of official complicity in the violence.
Following the train attack last year, retaliatory violence in Gujarat state quickly spread, and on the night of March 1 it reached a mostly Hindu neighborhood on the outskirts of the city of Vadodara, where Sheikh's family lived in a two-story house next door to their prosperous business, Best Bakery.
Around 8 p.m., she recalled, a mob formed outside the bakery and tried to set it alight with bombs made from gasoline-filled plastic bags. Sheikh took refuge with other family members and neighbors on an upstairs terrace, but others -- including an uncle and an elder sister -- were trapped on the ground floor, where they were soon surrounded by attackers wielding swords and other crude weapons.
The besieged Muslims repeatedly called police, and an officer finally appeared around 9:30 p.m. But instead of coming to their aid, Sheikh recalled, "I heard him tell the mob, 'Whatever you have to do, finish it off at night, don't leave anything until morning.' "
Sheikh said she could clearly identify some of the attackers as they "set upon" her maternal uncle with an iron rod. The family had moved into the neighborhood six months before and Sheikh said she knew a number of the killers by name. "I never imagined they would attack me," she recalled. "The relations were quite cordial."
The killing went on all night, and when it was over, 14 people were dead, including Sheikh's sister, her uncle and four neighborhood children. Some of the victims had been burned to death. Three Hindu employees of the bakery had their stomachs slit open, Sheikh told human rights investigators.
That morning, the attackers finally got their hands on Sheikh, her mother and another sister, marching them into a nearby field. "Let's rape these women before we burn them," Sheikh recalled one of the men saying.
But the men finally ran off when they spotted police nearby. Bleeding from a head wound, Sheikh was taken to a hospital, where she identified seven of the attackers by name. Her brother, who had been beaten unconscious, subsequently corroborated her statement and added other names.
Sheikh repeated her story in numerous appearances before human rights panels and the news media. But several weeks before her trial appearance on May 17 of this year, she said, her brother began receiving threatening phone calls from two local politicians.
She said the men threatened to interfere with her family's efforts to sell the burned-out bakery and intimated that the family could be in danger if she and her brother did not change their stories. Her brother followed the advice, falsely telling the court on May 7 that he had not recognized any of the attackers because it was too dark, Sheikh said.
In interviews, both politicians denied threatening Sheikh or any other family members.
Sheikh said she was also influenced to change her story by the indifference of prosecutors who made no effort to contact her before the trial, even though she was the most important witness.
"What should I do?" she recalled thinking. "Should I stick to my testimony or should I save my family's lives by saying something different?"
In the end, she chose the latter. Neither the prosecutor nor the judge asked why she changed her account.
Special correspondent Rama Lakshmi in New Delhi contributed to this report.
more accurately sums up the state of justice in India than the
acquittal of 21 accused in the Best Bakery case. This one had it
all: a horrible crime; political lenses through which the crime is
viewed from the moment it happens; an administration uninterested in
punishing the guilty, or anyone; police investigation characterised
by its indifferent shoddiness; witnesses intimidated or tempted to
become that quaint court term, 'hostile'; a court left with no
choice but to acquit.
Zaheera and some relatives took refuge on the terrace of the bakery.
The mob spent the night abusing them and trying to get at them.
Ironically, they couldn't use a ladder to get to the terrace because
'the walls were too hot.' In the morning, they killed three of the
bakery's workers. More irony, because all three were Hindus.
Best Bakery case: Amnesty blames Centre
By Our Special Correspondent
NEW DELHI July 9. The Amnesty International said today that the conduct of the Best Bakery case showed that the Central Government "lacked" the commitment to ensure that justice was rendered to the victims of communal violence and that India's criminal justice system also did not appear able to deliver justice.
In a statement, the Amnesty said the circumstances surrounding the acquittal of 21 persons accused of murder in the case confirmed its "worst fears about the lack of government commitment to ensuring justice to the victims of communal violence in Gujarat".
It said: "unless effective measures are taken by the authorities to ensure impartiality of the investigation and prosecution processes, justice will not be assured".
The Amnesty said that during the Gujarat violence, the Government dismissed international expressions of concern as interference.
The Government had said that the criminal justice system and other institutions, including the National Human Rights Commission, would adequately address the situation.
"These statements today appear hollow".
Referring to the statements of Zahira Shaikh and her mother that they had lied to the court because of threats and pressure to withdraw their testimony, the Amnesty said: "With numerous cases due to come to trial, this situation is unacceptable".
The organisation said that it was mobilising its worldwide membership to call on the Government to take immediate action to ensure the safety of witnesses in this and other pending cases. The Government should order an independent and impartial investigation into allegations that witnesses received threats to withdraw their testimony and take prompt action against those found culpable.
Until these steps were taken, Amnesty concluded, "the ability of the criminal justice system in Gujarat must be in doubt".
BY GOING BACK on her court testimony in the Best Bakery fire case, Zahira Sheikh, one of the survivors of the fire during the Gujarat riots, has not only brought the focus back on the grave issue of intimidation of witnesses, but has also highlighted the failure of the State to protect those deposing against members of the ruling establishment. In cases where there is strong suspicion of State complicity, as in those relating to the Gujarat riots, the judicial process has often been unable to insulate the witnesses against the influence of powerful ruling politicians. Both Zahira Sheikh and her mother, Sehrunissa Sheikh, have said they were pressured to withdraw their original charges, necessitating an immediate review of the acquittal of the 21 accused in the case. Evidently, the witnesses, already insecure after being at the receiving end of the Gujarat riots, did not believe that the courtroom was a safe place for them to depose freely against the accused. After all, the witnesses, belonging to the minority community, were the victims of the riots. They had seen their own family members being burnt to death, and they could not afford to take lightly the threats from those known for their ideological affinity to the accused. Moreover, some of the accused had clear links with the ruling establishment, and the witnesses had sufficient cause to believe that any testimony against them could turn out to be dangerous.
The public retraction of the court testimony squares with the earlier accounts of the witnesses before the National Human Rights Commission and the Commission of Inquiry appointed by the Government. Zahira Sheikh had also voluntarily recounted before the Concerned Citizens Tribunal and the national media her ordeal on March 1, 2002, when a mob burnt down her father's bakery, killing at least 12 persons. As there could have been no coercion involved in recording statements before such varied bodies, and there is circumstantial evidence of the involvement of a ruling party MLA in the trial before the fast track court in Vadodara, the inescapable conclusion is that Zahira Sheikh and her mother gave their testimony in favour of the accused under duress. Now before the media, they have clearly shown the subversion of the trial by the ruling establishment.
Not surprisingly, the Citizens for Justice and Peace, the group that gave Zahira Sheikh the confidence to go back on her court testimony, is talking of seeking a retrial outside Gujarat. After the experience of the twists-and-turns trial in Vadodara, where the witnesses were accompanied by a BJP member of the Legislative Assembly, there are apprehensions about the possibility of a fair trial in the BJP-ruled State. In the event of the retrial taking place in Gujarat, the CJP has decided to ask for a Special Public Prosecutor. Obviously, Zahira Sheikh and her family do not want to return to Vadodara where they will again be vulnerable to intimidation. Indeed, they have said they would not get justice in Gujarat where, they asserted, the public prosecutor, the police and the politicians were protecting the accused. Through all this, the Gujarat Government has maintained a stodgy silence, not giving any indication of an intention to appeal against the court verdict. Evidently, without pressure from civil rights groups, non-governmental organisations and the media, the State Government is unlikely to take the case to its logical conclusion. In the interests of justice, and to prevent other cases relating to Gujarat riots from fizzling out, the Best Bakery case must be reopened and retried.
Amnesty plea on safety of Best Bakery witnesses
DH News Service NEW DELHI, July 9
over “lack of government commitment to ensure justice to victims of
the communal violence in Gujarat” global human rights body Amnesty
International today urged the Centre to take immediate action to
ensure safety of witnesses in the Best Bakery case in Vadodara.
Justice on trial
public admission that fear prompted her to lie before the court in
the Best Bakery case reinforces the need for a retrial of the case
related to the Gujarat riots in an environment wherein witnesses
would be able to speak up without fear for their lives. The special
court in Vadodara acquitted 21 people who were accused of massacring
14 persons in the Best Bakery carnage during the Gujarat riots last
year. Eight of the victims were Zahira’s relatives. In court, Zahira
said that she was not able to recognise those who attacked her
family. The subsequent acquittal of all the accused was widely
condemned as a denial of justice and as an alarming precursor of the
kind of verdicts that could be anticipated in other cases relating
to the riots. It is well-known that the Gujarat police had colluded
with members of the VHP and the Bajrang Dal in perpetrating violence
against the minorities. In this context, few expected the
investigations by the State police to be fair.
TIMES NEWS NETWORK
AHMEDABAD: Legal experts of the state believe that Best Bakery complainant Zahira Sheikh's demand for a retrial outside Gujarat though difficult, is not entirely impossible.
Girish Patel, eminent lawyer said, ‘‘Though the possibility of a retrial is there, to secure such a retrial is extremely difficult under the present state of the law in the area of criminal justice.’’
He said retrial and transfer of a case to another state are two different issues.
Either the state government or complainant can file an appeal to the high court against an acquittal order of the sessions court after taking leave of the court.
The high court can then remand the case to the lower court for retrial. ‘‘However, to set aside an acquittal, the court has to have very strong ground.’’
TIMES NEWS NETWORK
NEW DELHI: Amnesty International on Wednesday said that the acquittal of 21 accused in the Best Bakery case has "confirmed its worst fears about the lack of government commitment to ensuring justice to victims of the communal violence in Gujarat".
In a statement, Amnesty highlighted the recent confessional statements by two key witnesses who admitted that they lied in court because of threats. It appealed to the government to order an "independent and impartial investigation into the allegations of witnesses that they had received threats".
"Statements made by key witnesses in the past few days clearly accuse BJP politicians and other interested parties of threatening and harassing them into withdrawing their testimony. With numerous cases due to come up for trial, this situation is unacceptable," Amnesty said.
The international human rights body said an impartial investigation would make retrial of the Best Bakery case possible. Until then, the "ability of the criminal justice system in Gujarat to provide justice must be in doubt".
Amnesty also welcomed the NHRC's intervention and expressed concern that the commission's recommendation asking for cases to be investigated by the CBI was ignored.
outside Gujarat a tall order: Experts
AHMEDABAD: Has the Best Bakery complainant Zahira Sheikh asked for moon by demanding a retrial outside Gujarat? Legal luminaries of the state believe that though difficult, it's not impossible.
Girish Patel, eminent lawyer and human rights activist believes, "Though the possibility of retrial is there, to secure such retrial is extremely difficult under the present state of law in the area of criminal justice."
According him, a retrial and a transfer of a case to another state are two different issues. Either the state government or complainant can file an appeal with the High Court against an acquittal order of Sessions court after taking leave of the court.
The High Court can remand the case to the lower court for retrial.
"However, to set aside an acquittal, the court needs a very strong ground," he says.
Patel believes that the question of transferring the case to another state only arises after a retrial has been ordered. "Under the Criminal Procedure Code and according to the Constitution, only the Supreme Court of India has powers to transfer the case from one state to another," he says.
P D Desai, a former chief justice of Bombay High Court, believes "An appeal would not appear to be a proper remedy because the appellate court will have to go by the records as they stand. And here we find that all the material witnesses have turned hostile. But it will have a symbolic importance in as much it would show that the state government is keen to follow up the matter in order to bring the accused to book."
According to him, "The only possible remedy is a writ petition in the Supreme Court or High Court. Either one of those who are directly affected take up that remedy or the NHRC which has statutory power to move the High Court or Supreme Court prefers to invoke that remedy, in case it is satisfied on the material placed before it by the affected parties, including NGOs or is itself satisfied on gathering material that it is a fit and proper case to bring justice," he says.
As far as transferring the case to another state is concerned, Desai, believes, "It should not be on the grounds that there is a loss of faith in the judiciary. Because the judiciary has to act on whatever evidence is available to it as a result of investigation. However, if it can be proved that the witnesses are not coming forth to depose truly, either because of inducement or coercion, then it may be a fit case for the transfer of case outside the case which the Supreme Court can direct a transfer."
According to former Gujarat chief justice B J Diwan, "It is within the power of Supreme Court and only the Supreme Court to transfer one case from one state to another. I recollect there was one such case which was transferred from one state to another."
However, according to him a retrial is not possible. "The High Court or Supreme Court of India can decide whether acquittal was correct or not but they cannot order a retrial."
A retired High Court judge of Rajasthan who refused to be identified, said, "My impression is that it's (a retrial outside the state) is not possible. But I would not like to comment on the issue before going through all the documents and papers related to the case."
When the fast track court hearing the Best Bakery case acquitted all 21 accused of massacring 14 Muslims in the bakery’s premises on March 1, 2002, Justice A S Anand, the chairman of the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) lamented that there had been a miscarriage of justice. Monday’s statement by Zahira Sheikh that she had turned a hostile witness during the trial under duress, confirms Justice Anand’s observation.
Zahira says she was threatened by BJP MLA Madhu Shrivastava, who told her that the rest of her family too would be killed if she identified those who murdered her father, uncles and sister. Even at the time of the trial in the fast track court, newspaper reports had noted as odd the fact that Shrivastava had escorted Zahira to and from the court on the day she deposed. Of course, Zahira is not the only witness to have turned hostile in this case. As many as 39 of the 73 witnesses produced in court turned hostile, some accusing the police of having forced them to sign statements they could not read, others even suggesting that the accused had actually rescued Muslims from rioters.
So what’s new? It is routine in India for powerful people accused of heinous crimes to be acquitted for lack of evidence, largely because witnesses in such cases turn hostile with unfailing regularity. That is shocking in itself. In some cases, witnesses turn hostile not merely because perjury is not viewed seriously but because they are either bought over by the accused or because the threats they face are more credible than the notion that the state will protect them. But the Best Bakery case is not merely about powerful individuals making a mockery of a toothless criminal justice system. In this case, the witnesses were not only contending with a state that they saw as incapable of protecting them, but one they perceived as hand-in-glove with the accused. Which is why Zahira today is demanding a retrial outside Gujarat. Whether this is legally possible, we do not know; but if it is, we must have such a retrial. Not for Zahira alone, but to assure the victims of all communal riots that the system ultimately will stand by them, not against them.
SWAMINATHAN S ANKLESARIA AIYAR
TIMES NEWS NETWORK
The Indian public and press wail endlessly about crimes that go unpunished, from fraud and embezzlement to rape and murder. But one major crime attracts no attention or odium: perjury. The only newspaper column I can recall on this subject was an excellent one by Manoj Mitta. Our cavalier toleration of perjury is a major, underestimated reason why our justice system has become farcical.
The Best Bakery case was a terrible case of communal murder during the Gujarat riots last year. Yet the accused were acquitted because several witnesses, mostly Muslims, revised their version of what had happened. In technical parlance, the witnesses turned hostile. In plain language, they told lies despite taking an oath to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.
This has been confirmed by Zahira Sheikh, the key witness in the case. She has now appeared at a press conference declaring that “whatever I said in court was false” and “I was compelled to lie under pressure.” She now demands a retrial outside Gujarat, arguing that no fair trial is possible in that state.
Many critics have castigated the prosecutors, police and judge in the Best Bakery case. None seem to find anything criminal about Zahira Sheikh and others turning hostile. Yet successful justice systems the world over treat perjury as a terrible crime which will ruin the whole justice system if not rooted out. If everybody in court tells lies, you cannot hope to discover the truth. Witnesses need to believe that if they lie, they will be jailed. Only then will the incentive to tell the truth exceed that to lie. That is why perjurers are jailed without compunction in countries with decent judicial systems.
But not in India. What is worse, neither the public nor the judiciary seem much concerned about it. They seem to think that when so many other crimes go unpunished, why focus on perjury? They fail to see that if perjury is not checked, the judicial system simply cannot deliver justice. Forget the raft of legal reforms proposed by various pundits and commissions. Start with a step that requires no new laws or regulations. Enforce relentlessly the existing law on perjury.
By this yardstick, Zahira Sheikh should be tried for perjury immediately. Given the extenuating circumstances, she is entitled to a mild punishment of perhaps one week in jail. But a message needs to go out, loud and strong, that lying in court is not a permissible tactic for any witness, regardless of threats they face. Today, all sorts of pressures can be put on witnesses. Criminals routinely threaten them with death. There is no witness protection programme, as in the United States. Witnesses believe the police cannot shield them, that criminals can injure or kill them with impunity.
The press has long wailed about this. But the press has ignored the fact that friends of witnesses urge them to turn hostile because there is no fear of prosecution for perjury. The civilised world regards perjury as an extremely serious offence, but uncivilised India treats lying in court as routine, even as common sense. Elsewhere, the fear of being jailed for perjury persuades witnesses to tell the truth despite threats. In India, there is no such pressure. And so witnesses keep lying.
The Best Bakery case is only the latest of a long series of cases where justice is thwarted in brazen killings. In the Jessica Lal case, one witness after another turned hostile, except for an NRI who lived abroad and so could not be intimidated. In the BMW case, the original facts changed magically in the middle of the case because nobody feared prosecution for perjury. Who cares about an oath taken in court, on the Bhagvad Gita or Koran? People no longer fear God, only godfathers.
Zahira Sheikh demands a retrial in another state to get justice. There are global precedents for this. Readers may have seen the film The Hurricane about a black boxing champion Rubin “Hurricane” Carter. He was convicted on concocted evidence of murder in the state of New Jersey by two separate juries. His lawyers discovered new evidence that could exonerate him, but felt there was no point appealing in New Jersey because of racial prejudice, and the fact that so many high-ups in the state legal system had built their careers on the Carter trials. So Carter’s lawyers presented the fresh evidence directly to a federal court, against all procedural rules. They claimed justice could not be obtained by following the normal procedure of presenting the new evidence in New Jersey. The federal judge set aside normal procedure and heard the case. He denounced the whole New Jersey system, and set Hurricane Carter free.
I would love to see a similar vindication of Zahira Sheikh. But she has ruined her own case by lying in court, and saying something else outside. The solution: she should voluntarily plead guilty to perjury and suffer quick incarceration. That could be legally maintainable evidence that her statements in the Gujarat court were false. Only then, I suspect, can another judge allow her to give a different version of events.
Whether this tactic will stand up legally, I do not know. What I do know is that justice in India has been castrated by widespread perjury. The Supreme Court has ordered the creation of thousands of new courts to improve justice. But if this merely multiplies perjury, more judges will not mean more justice.
One simple way to check perjury is for any charge by any person in a murder case to be in the form of sworn depositions before a magistrate. If the witness then turns hostile, it will amount to perjury, with no defence possible, and the judge can convict the witness on the spot. That will surely persuade witnesses that lies are less profitable than truth. That may the most important legal reform of all that we need today.
July 12, 2003 14:43
"Zahira approached the Commission yesterday and made a statement before the full Commission headed by Chairman A S Anand," NHRC sources said in Delhi on Saturday.
Among other things, she stated that under threat to her life and the life of the remaining members of the family, she had taken back her statements in the trial court.
Meanwhile, the full Commission also considered the report given by its team, which visited Vadodra. The team in its interim report, among other things, sought more time to translate and examine the material, which was voluminous in nature and written in Gujarati.
Commission agreed to the request and directed the report be
submitted 'expeditiously', the sources said.
The embers at Best Bakery,
where 14 people were murdered on March 1 a year ago, refuse to die.
Weeks after she turned hostile in
court, and vanished from Baroda, Zahera Sheikh, 19, the main
complainant in the case, surfaced in Mumbai on July 7 to break her
silence ('And justice for none', The Week, July 13). "Whatever I
said in court was false. I was compelled to lie under pressure," the
diminutive girl said in a clear voice.
revelation has come a touch late. Acquitted by the court, the 21
accused in the massacre have decamped from Hanuman Tekri where the
bakery had stood. Relatives feign ignorance about their whereabouts.
Even Lal Mohammed is missing; he told the court that the accused had
helped Muslim families in the area when Best Bakery was set ablaze.
BEST BAKERY CASE
'... judgement contains gratuitous statements, and observations and speculations with little immediate relevance to the case.'
Investigation and Prosecution
The Best Bakery case is among the most serious instances of violence during the Gujarat carnage of 2002. Apprehending that the state police would not be able to conduct a fair, unbiased and thorough investigation, the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) in its report of April 2002, had recommended that the case be handed over to the CBI. For similar reasons, a PIL pleading for transfer of the investigation to the CBI was also filed in the Supreme Court.
The incident involved the gruesome killing of 14 people when the Best Bakery, in the Hanuman Tekri area of Vadodara, was attacked by a large mob (see PUCL-Vadodara Shanti Abhiyan report on the violence, pp. 60-62). There have been allegations that police failed to take adequate action to save the victims during the attack (see PUCL-VSA report, p.61), that lasted for many hours. Ironically, the officer in charge of investigation of the Best Bakery case was PI (DCB) P. P. Kanani, who has been repeatedly named for his involvement in brutal harassment of Muslims in a number of areas of Vadodara city (Taiwada, Bawamanpura, Memon Colony, and Panigate) during the period of violence (see PUCL-VSA report pp.135 & 138)
The Best Bakery case is the first to be tried by a "fast track" court specially set up to try cases of violence during the Gujarat carnage of 2002. However, the manner in which the investigation was carried out and the case heard have done little to inspire confidence among the victims of violence or the public at large that justice would be done. Not only was the investigation entrusted to the very same police force whose role during the violence has been under a cloud (and indeed headed by a police officer prominently accused of grave misdemeanor against Muslims during the violence), but the public prosecutor arguing the case is reputed to have a bias against Muslims, while his deputy is a long-time member of the RSS. Furthermore, the general climate following the violence has created a sense of insecurity among Muslims. In this context, it is obvious that extraordinary care should have been taken to assure the security of witnesses and to forestall the possibility of their intimidation or manipulation. However, there is no evidence suggesting that such care was indeed taken.
Given this setting and background, the judgement acquitting all the accused comes as no surprise. The judgement has drawn widespread criticism and caused consternation within as well as outside the country.
It is necessary to stress again that, to ensure justice in such a sensitive case, it was absolutely imperative that the court should have directed the police to provide the maximum possible protection and security to all witnesses. The failure of the court to make any arrangements towards this end constitutes a major and fatal lapse in a case of this nature. Neither did the court intervene to prevent police officers accused of bias and misdemeanor during the violence from handling the investigations.
In the absence of any directives from the court, the Public Prosecutor (hereafter PP) also never raised the issue of the security of his witnesses. Under the given circumstances (which include the majority of prosecution witnesses "turning hostile"), this cannot but raise doubts about the credibility of the PP.
The PP also did not bother to place on record or follow up the report of the NHRC, which (based on depositions before it during its hearings in Vadodara) contained information relevant to the case.
Neither did the PP refer to or follow up on media reports of intimidation of witnesses. There was therefore a clear failure to place on record all relevant materials, pursue all leads, and seriously consider the contradiction between the amended statements of the witnesses and the numerous reports appearing in the media, in the NHRC report and in fact-finding reports of citizens' organizations, which were similar in nature to the retracted statements of the witnesses who had turned "hostile", but completely contrary to the witnesses' amended statements. These lapses constitute fatal flaws in the way the prosecution conducted the case.
Despite one witness after another turning "hostile", the Prosecution never requested the court for an adjournment to investigate this unusual situation and attempt to strengthen its case. This is a poor reflection on the assiduousness with which the case was pursued. It would appear that the PP was less than conscientious in the exercise of his duty. Taken together with the points made above, it seems clear that the investigation and presentation of the case by the prosecution was half-hearted, insincere, and not pursued in a manner designed to secure justice.
The judgement in the Best Bakery case must be seen against this background. A striking feature of the judgement is that, while it passes adverse comments about the shoddy police investigation and the failure of the prosecution to present adequate evidence, it does not go beyond this general criticism either to order reinvestigation of the case or to recommend specific action against the erring police officers for this grave dereliction of duty.
There is nothing in the judgement to suggest that adequate attention was paid to the serious and highly unusual circumstance that the majority of the witnesses "turned hostile", and the possible reasons for this disturbing turn of events. It should have been obvious to any objective observer that this pointed to a situation where a gross miscarriage of justice was likely to result. Instead of investigating the possible causes of such a large number of retractions, the judgement has accepted them at face value.
There can be only two reasons for the retraction of statements by witnesses:
(1) The statements were improperly recorded by the police (as claimed by the witnesses who "turned hostile"). Apart from the fact that the recording of false or fabricated evidence by the police would constitute a serious crime, this suggests that the police sought to weaken its own case by presenting untenable evidence hoping that it would not stand in the court.
(2) The second possibility is that statements were indeed recorded by the police, which were broadly correct, but were retracted by witnesses because of intimidation or other methods of manipulation. The fact that some of the witnesses who have retracted their statements made similar statements (to those initially recorded by the police) to the NHRC, human rights groups like PUCL- Vadodara Shanti Abhiyan and the media suggests that their statements were withdrawn or altered under duress.
Most recently, an important witness, Sehrunissa Sheikh (mother of key witness Zahira Sheikh and widow of the Best Bakery proprietor), who was present in the Best Bakery when it was attacked, has stated in a tape-recorded interview given to The Indian Express (July 6 Vadodara edition, page 1), that she lied before the court because she had received threats, leading her to fear for her life if she spoke the truth about what she had witnessed. PUCL-VSA expects that this will be the case with other witnesses too.
We believe that both kinds of situations occurred with respect to the retraction of statements by witnesses, i.e., that some of the witnesses did so under duress and out of fear, while the police may indeed have falsely implicated a few others in the case as witnesses.
The defence has argued that only the FIR of March 1, 2002 (of one Raizkhan Amin Mohammed Pathan) is admissible in the Best Bakery case, while the FIR of March 4, 2002 (of the "star witness" Zahira Sheikh) was manipulated by the police. Astonishingly, the judgement accepts this argument without even considering the fact that statements similar in import to the March 4th FIR were made by witnesses before several agencies and/or organizations well after March 4, 2002, and affirmed, according to media reports, as recently as February 2003. For instance the same Zahira Sheikh gave incriminating evidence before the NHRC during March 2002, and before the Citizens' Tribunal consisting of eminent retired judges during May 2002.
Apart from these inexplicable lapses, the judgement of the fast track court did not take into account the widely reported NHRC report, which had indicted the state administration and security - particularly the police - for their role during the violence. It is difficult to understand why in the entire process of prosecution, it was not deemed necessary to follow up evidence or engage seriously with the apprehensions presented in the NHRC report.
Justifying the Outcome of the Case?
In contrast to the sketchy treatment of the facts at hand, a sizeable part of the Best Bakery judgement (in fact the last 8 pages out of a total of 24 pages) is devoted to establishing a context and rationale for the violence. This section of the judgement contains gratuitous statements, and observations and speculations with little immediate relevance to the case. The observations and rationalizations in this section include assertions such as the following, which speak for themselves:
(1) "The policy of industrialization, following the example of the Soviet Union, helped create conditions for communal riots."
(2) ".... keeping vote banks in view, the frequent yoke of reservations has been troublesome for the country .... it is a reality that because of reservations, violent riots keep breaking out."
(3) "The disputed happenings were a reaction to the Godhra episode, but the enduring and everlasting cause for communal riots is the enduring policy of divide and rule of the British."
(4) "When police arrive on the scene of a riot, they arrest curious bystanders, with the result that the prosecution is riding a dead horse which can never pass the finishing post."
(5) "At the time of the Mahabharata, great men like Bhismapitamaha and Dronacharya had sided with unrighteousness, only so that the country may not be divided."
(6) "The Aryan people came into this country from the North Polar area. Muslims came from Persia and with Ghazni, and Parsis from Iran."
(7) " It needs to be said that if one's identity and loyalty do not lie toward one's land, one is likely to be destroyed."
(8)" .... the word Dharma nirpekhsa (or "secularism") has come to connote freedom without rules.
Freedom without rules means licentiousness."
This necessarily brief sample of the statements and interpretations presented in the judgement should provide a flavor of their rigor and accuracy. The "arguments" in this section of the judgement seem to suggest that riots in general are an outcome of certain deep historical and political factors which essentially boil down to the creation of Hindu-Muslim antagonisms created by the British "divide and rule" policy. This would imply that the violence in the present case can also be explained in such general and vague terms. Also, this diverts focus from the specific details of the present violence, its likely proximate causes and perpetrators, and dilutes the criminal nature of the barbaric acts committed in the specific instance. None of these seem to merit closer attention and analysis. The judgement also suggests that mobs in a riot situation are "mad/crazy" and individuals in a mob are in a mental state in which there is a loss of individual judgement and responsibility. This contributes to exonerating individuals for their responsibility and culpability in a heinous criminal act, and the high likelihood that there was planned violence which was not a spontaneous act of "mob madness".
Taken in toto, the judgement completely fails to consider together the serious anomalies in the case, and accepts at face value a prosecution case whose authenticity and sincerity even a layperson would have strong reason to doubt. The casual and cavalier manner in which the evidence has been presented and heard in this case can only result, as in the words of the ex-Chief Justice of India, Dr. A. S. Anand, in a "grave miscarriage of justice", with dire implications for the entire country. In a case of this magnitude and importance, in which 14 people were brutally killed over a period of many hours, it would appear that there were only victims but no perpetrators. From the judgement, one might be excused for concluding that only history was at fault. The case and this judgement will set an ominous precedent which is bound to erode people's faith in the fairness and ability of the system to deliver justice, and especially that of weaker sections and minorities in society.
(1) PUCL-Vadodara demands that the case be reopened and further investigated by a neutral and competent agency like the CBI.
(2) Police and other State officials against whom there are accusations of communal bias or misdemeanor against victims of violence, witnesses or other members of the Muslim community, should be transferred to ensure that they are not involved in investigations of the cases, or in a position to intimidate or otherwise influence potential witnesses.
(3) The Prosecutor and team in a fresh trial should be acceptable to the victims, having no links whatsoever to organizations or political formations accused of complicity in the violence.
(4) Action should be taken against any police officials found guilty of falsification of evidence, dereliction of duty or biased behavior in the course of investigations.
(5) Concrete and adequate steps must be taken to provide security to witnesses, and towards creating an atmosphere of confidence in which it will be possible for witnesses to depose fearlessly.
Outlook July 07 2003
BEST BAKERY CASE
With the dramatic press-conference by the key-witness in the Best Bakery case naming BJP MLA Madhu Srivastav and his cousin Chandrakant Srivastav, as those responsible for intimidating her, there's a ray of hope for the despairing victims of the carnage.
It may well have been a scene from a Hindi film. The key witness to the Best Bakery massacre in Vadodara, one of the most gruesome killings in the city in the post Godhra riots, who had turned hostile in court, and then reportedly gone off to Delhi, and not been traceable suddenly surfaced in a press-conference in Mumbai on Monday evening.
When dimunitive 19-year Zaheera Shaikh spoke to the press for the first time after she had turned hostile in court two months ago, she looked guarded and wary, a far cry from the outspoken young woman who had deposed fearlessly before several tribunals and declared that she wouldn't marry until the perpetrators of the Best Bakery massacre were punished.
"What I said in court was false. We were being threatened everyday. I thought we would be killed. And no one came forward to support us. Main bilkul akeli pad gayi thi," ["I was completely alone"] she recounted tersely in the packed press conference. As the main complainant in the case, Zaheera's about-face was a major factor that had led to the acquittal of all 21 accused in the horrific carnage in which 14 people had been murdered over a period of 12 hours on March 1, 2002. Four of those killed were Zaheera's relatives.
As the first court verdict on the Gujarat riot cases, the ruling has been a blow to the victims of the pogrom who see it as a preview of how the rest of the cases will end. The ruling was delivered by the fast-track session court ten days ago. Zaheera's statement coincides with the NHRC's visit to Vadodara to examine the evidence in the case.
Just a day before, her mother Sehrunissa spoke out, admitting that the family had lied in court "trembling with fear" under threat from the ruling BJP. The family is now demanding a retrial of the case from Mumbai because they don't expect a fair trial in their home state. Of the 73 witnesses examined by the court, as many as 41 had turned hostile including Zaheera's mother, brother and sister.
"What my mother said was right," Zaheera told the media. She said that BJP MLA Madhu Srivastav and his cousin the Congress councillor Chandrakant Srivastav threatened to kill her if she deposed in court. "They used to call and threaten me on the family's mobile phone. They used to say, "You will not be able to go to court. We will kill you on the way. There was a lot of pressure from the BJP and Bajrang Dal."
"There were threats all the time, they repeatedly told us that my mother, too, would be killed if I didn’t go back on my statement to the police. I didn’t want any more of my people to die. There was no way I could have told the truth in court."
Predictably, Madhu Srivatsav blames a political conspiracy by some Congress leaders to tarnish his and his party and state's image. His cousin, Chandrakant, the Congress Councillor, echoes him in not knowing who Zaheera is, and claims no contact with her or her family.
Soon after she turned hostile, Zaheera had gone into hiding and has now resurfaced with her family in Mumbai under the protection of the NGO, Citizens for Justice and Peace. "I don’t trust anything, anybody there [in Vadodara], and I am too scared to go there now. Our lives are in danger," Zaheera said.
On the day of her deposition, she explained, she could not cope with the hostility in the courtroom. "People were staring at me. There were no Muslims there, only Hindus. When I was asked to recognise the accused, I said I could not." She said. Zaheera's lawyer Mihir Desai said that the judge did not cross-question her and her lawyer, the state public prosecutor, had not bothered to meet her before she was called to depose in court. The only question he asked her was, "Do you want to recognise any of the accused in court?" "In such a high profile criminal case, it's unthinkable for the lawyer to meet the key witness only in court," Desai said.
"Madhu Srivastava asked me to lie in court," she said: "The 21 accused are the same ones who had killed all those people in the bakery." Had the police, as alleged by some witnesses, picked up the wrong persons? "No," she said, "they are the ones. If the case comes for retrial, I will identify each one of them."
Zaheera maintained that in the end, it was the sense of isolation that made it difficult for her to fight it out. "If someone from the community had stood by me, I would not have given up. But they all let me down. Even the relief committee demanded Rs 4 lakhs to fight my case. All the lawyers I approached demanded legal fees," Zaheera despaired.
After the family turned hostile, rumours about a trade-off with the BJP flew thick and fast. These were compounded by reports that Madhu Srivastava had accompanied Zaheera to court on the day of her deposition in May and that she had left the court in his car. But Zaheera denied the allegations. "I want to clear my name. People say we took money but that's not true. We were pressured," she said. She said she had gone to court in a rickshaw and saw Madhu Shrivastava outside the courtroom. She admitted that she left the court in his car, but said it was under duress. "My brother told me to get into the car and I did what he said. He was also under pressure," she told reporters.
Zaheera said that she had gone to a relative's home in UP soon after her deposition and learnt about the verdict just a few days ago. She then decided to approach the CJP since she had met its members when they visited Gujarat last year. "I thought they would help me and they agreed," she said.
Activists from the CJP said that it was more important to focus on the fact that Zaheera's testimony had remained consistent for an entire year and changed overnight, that too, after the BJP came back to power in the state. "She has deposed before many tribunals and her stance has been consistent. The sudden change shows that there was pressure," said Teesta Setalvad from the CJP.
"We are here to extend our support and help in the family’s rehabilitation," Alyque Padamsee said. "We cannot keep quiet any longer. What will happen if those who have promised to protect turn persecutors. We have to get more people to voice our dissent against what is happening."
Arguing that the entire edifice of democracy will crumble if justice is not provided, Javed Akhtar said: "It is obvious that there have been no serious attempts at meting out justice to those who suffered in the riots. It is time we stood up to get counted."
The CJP plans to move the supreme court, asking for the case to be transferred and tried afresh. "There have been several precedents especially in matrimonial disputes where the supreme court has allowed cases to be transferred.Retrials in criminal cases are more unusual but we hope for the best," said Desai. For the moment, the family has been shifted to an "undisclosed location" away from media scrutiny. As for the hundreds of victims of the carnage, there's reason to hope that justice may yet come their way.
A trial has never been moved out of a state in India. Will Best Bakery depart from the norm?
Over to the Supreme Court. Even as the acquittals in the Best Bakery case hit the headlines with key eyewitness Zaheera saying she turned hostile due to threats and independent rights groups asking for the reopening the cases in a court outside Gujarat, there remains a good chance that a new chapter is unfolding in the history of communal riot-related cases.
Is there a legal avenue through which the cases can be moved out of Gujarat, as the victims are now demanding? "Technically yes. If the Supreme Court wants, it can take suo motu cognisance of the case and move it to a court outside Gujarat,'' says former Bombay High Court judge Hosbet Suresh.
Adds Prashant Bhushan, senior Supreme Court lawyer: "Zaheera's point is correct. Given the situation in Gujarat, it is impossible to expect a fair trial. But the high court is not authorised to transfer trials from within its own jurisdiction.''
Even though the apex court is seized of the matter, there is no precedent in Indian legal history where a case has been moved out of a state. But
there could well be a first time. Currently there are four public interest litigations (PILS) lying with the apex court. These include the PILS filed by artiste Mallika Sarabhai, Gandhian Devendrabhai Pathak, writer Mahashweta Devi, represented by ngo Action Aid and its head Harsh Mander, and one filed by journalist Kuldip Nayar and activist Teesta Setalvad, among others.
The PILS—which have been clubbed together—have a common thematic thread running through them and deal with the criminal justice system. The plea is that where there has been a gross miscarriage of justice, an independent investigation by an outside agency, preferably the CBI, is essential. Also special courts (or fast-track courts) should be set up for early disposal of cases and adequate relief and rehabilitation provided for riot victims.
Among the most detailed is Pathak's PIL. It has a list of six of the worst riot cases, including the Best Bakery case and the Naroda Patia massacre on the outskirts of Ahmedabad. "We are waiting to see what the apex court does. Then we will know how the case is going to move. In this case, even the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) can move the Supreme Court for transfer of cases and order a fresh trial,'' says Aparna Bhatt, who is one of the main lawyers fighting this PIL.
The legal route is what most experts prescribe. They say merely arousing public opinion may not be enough. Says Action Aid's Raman Mehta: "It is important to have independent monitors. The Best Bakery case is an example. firs have no names, they are clubbed together and the prosecution case is practically non-existent. Like in Zaheera's case, it will have to be reopened. There should be fresh registration of unregistered cases. A lot of people have withdrawn cases under threat or have simply been ignored by the local police. These people need to be identified and provided protection.''
Time is of the essence. Lawyers and independent observers fear that the longer it takes for proceedings to move, the colder the trail would become. With the state government not in a tearing hurry, there can only be cause for more trauma for Zaheera and other victims like her.
Justice Hosbet Suresh Former Bombay HC Judge "Technically, the SC can take suo motu cognisance and move the case outside Gujarat."
The key witness in the Best Bakery case who turned hostile in court, has now come out into the open saying she was threatened by BJP MLA Madhu Srivastava and his cousin, Congress councillor, Chandrakant Srivastava alias Bhattu. Full text of the interview, excerpts from which appear in the print magzine.
A few days after 19-year old Zaheera Shaikh spoke out about how her family turned hostile under duress, she looks calm and confident. The key witness to the Best Bakery massacre - one of the most brutal killings in Vadodara in the post-Godhra mayhem - is now sheltering in Mumbai with her family under the protection of the NGO, Citizens for Justice and Peace.
Just a fortnight ago, all 21 accused in the case were acquitted by the sessions court. A week after the verdict her mother Sehrunissa confessed the family had back-tracked under pressure. In a dramatic press conference two days later, Zaheera alleged that the family had received death threats from BJP MLA Madhukar Shrivastav and his cousin the Congress councillor Chandrakant Shrivastav alias Bhattu.
Zaheera's statement coincided with the NHRC's visit to Vadodara to examine evidence in the case. The carnage took place on March 1, 2002 when 14 people were murdered by a Hindu mob over a period of 12 hours at the Best Bakery owned by Zaheera's family. Her sister and maternal uncle were among those murdered.
Over the last year, Zaheera had boldly named the killers and the FIR was based on her complaint. She had even declared that she wouldn't marry till the killers were nabbed. But in May, she suddenly turned hostile with the rest of her family - a major factor that led to the collapse of the case.
In a tape-recorded interview, the diminutive woman spoke to Priyanka Kakodkar about the events that led to her about-face in court.
When did the threats begin? Did the Srivastav cousins meet you personally?
The threat started after my family received summons from the court in the beginning of May. Before that, we had not been threatened. Everyone thought the case would be tried in Ahmedabad or Delhi. But after we got the summons from the Vadodara court, Bhattu and Madhu Srivastav contacted Lal Mohammad, a scrap dealer in our basti and started threatening us through him.
Lal Mohammad would tell my elder brother Nafitullah what they said - that we would be killed if we told the court what had happened that night. It was through Nafitullah that the threats reached me. I did not meet either Bhattu or Madhu Srivastav till the day of my court hearing on May 17. On that day, Bhattu came up to me inside the court and threatened me directly. I recognised him because he's from our area.
He said, "zaban palat de nahii to achha nahi hoga (change your testimony otherwise you will pay). Your entire family will be killed. If you take our side, your family will be saved." Madhu Srivastav was also in court but I didn't know who he was. He just looked like a dangerous villain who kept staring at me. I got to know his identity later when I went to meet the public prosecutor after the hearing.
A reporter came to ask me why I had changed my testimony but this man shooed him away. When the reporter resisted, he said, "Don't you know that I'm Madhu Srivastav?" That's how I figured out it was him.
Did they meet your brother Nafitullah directly?
They had already informed Nafitullah that they would get all the accused off the hook. That the lawyers and police were on their side. After the summons, Lal Mohammad took my brother to meet both of them. He returned really shaken. He told me they had really pressured him and we should think about the safety of the family.
A week before my court hearing, my brother was made to appear in court without even a summons. He retracted his statement even though he had been attacked with swords by the mob. He came and told me there was no hope because everyone was on their side but I was still firm. It was when I went to court on May 17, that I got really scared.
What happened in court?
Firstly, there was no one to support us. I went to court with my mother and younger brother. As soon as we entered, Bhattu threatened me. And all around us, there was a huge crowd of hostile people. There were no Muslims in the crowd. They were mainly people from the Bajrang Dal and the families of the accused - the people who had murdered my family. They were all staring at me angrily and they were all from the same side. I felt they could do anything to my family.
At that moment, I thought - what should I do? Should I tell the truth or save my family? The public prosecutor who was supposed to represent me, also didn't seem to be on my side. The first time I met him was in court. After I took the witness stand, he told me "I am Raghuvir Pandya, the government lawyer and I'm going to be defending you." I was shocked. Shouldn't he have met us before the trial?
I had tried several times to meet the government lawyers without success. He asked me how many people had attacked the bakery. I said there were 15,000 though there were really just around 500. That's because Bhattu had demanded I say that. Then the lawyer asked me to identify the accused and I did not.
Didn't your community and the human rights groups in Vadodara support you?
No, I had no support from anyone. If I hadn't felt so alone, I would still have been able to resist the pressure. I could not even organise a lawyer for our family because everyone we went to asked for money. They said they needed at least Rs 4 lakhs to fight the case.
Why did it take you two months to clarify your stand?
After the court hearing, I went to UP to stay with our relatives. I wasn't in Vadodara when the acquittal verdict came out. People started accusing me of having taken money to change my testimony, but that's completely untrue. I couldn't tolerate these allegations. I wanted to let people know that it happened only because we were under threat.
There were rumours of a bargain with the BJP because you were seen with Madhu Srivastav in court and you left in his car. Is that true?
There was absolutely no bargain. I only saw him inside the court. As I said before, he did not accompany me to court and I had never met him before that day. After the hearing, my brother Nafitullah made me sit in a car and did not tell me whose car it was. I did not know it was Madhu Srivastav's car.
How did you contact the Citizens for Justice and Peace? Why didn't you contact them when you were being threatened?
I remember speaking to them last year when they visited Vadodara after the riots began. When I returned from UP and wanted to speak out, I decided to get in touch with them again. I had lost their card, so I did not contact them earlier. But once I returned, I was determined to find their number because I had no help in Gujarat.
In the year since the incident, were you heckled by the accused or other Hindus?
No, the problems really began after we received the summons in May. It was in response to these threats and the atmosphere in court that day that I turned hostile. My family had moved to a relief camp and then to a Muslim basti after the incident, so we didn't really face any heckling.
You had earlier accused the police of doctoring the chargesheet in the case. Did they deliberately exclude some of the accused?
Firstly, they took a long time to arrest the accused. I had given them the names of the Thakkar brothers when I was in hospital and they did not arrest them for an entire month. Even then, they arrested one brother and did not chargesheet Bharat Thakkar who was the main person behind the attack.
Do you think the Gujarat riot victims will get justice?
There is no justice in Gujarat. The government there will bury the cases. But I'm hopeful that this case will be re-opened. And if it's tried from outside Gujarat, there is a better chance of justice.
Lal Mohammad told the NHRC team that you are lying. How do you respond to what he said?
I feel he has been cooperating with the Srivastav cousins all along because he is also being threatened. In this atmosphere of dread, it's difficult to fight.
The last year must have been very difficult for you. How did you cope?
It's been very hard. That whole scene and those sounds are always going to stay with me. I keep thinking of my sister who was killed so brutally. I remember how much we all pleaded with them to stop. And our own neighbours did this. That too, after assuring us soon after the Godhra incident that we had nothing to fear. In the morning they said they would protect us and at night they came and burnt us. I feel very angry that they got away. I have felt angry for most of the year.
Do you think Hindus and Muslims can live together?
because this happened doesn't mean it will keep happening. Just
because they did this to us doesn't mean others will.
Outlook (July 21 2003)
The Best Bakery case raises dire questions about how fair the other riot trials will turn out to be
It was a bombshell in itself. And it also served as a rude wake-up call that put a question mark on all post-Godhra riot cases on trial. When Zaheera Shaikh, a key witness in the Best Bakery case in Vadodara, publicly stated last week that she had lied in court under threat to her life, it triggered waves of outrage. The National Human Right Commission (NHRC), acting a bit belatedly, rushed a team to re-examine the case. Rights groups demanded that all riot-related investigations be handed over to the cbi. It was suggested that the cases be tried outside Gujarat. But even as the world cried foul, the state government showed no signs of taking a second look at the Best Bakery trial.
precedent set by this case will be crucial, for a spate of riot
cases are due for fast-track trial all over Gujarat. These will
unfold in the shadow of some serious political cut and thrust and an
acute focus on the post-riots justice delivery in the state. In
between the pious words, stinging recriminations and swirl of events
much larger than him stands the lonely figure of the ordinary riot
says seven of her family members were brutally killed. The main
complainant and key witness to the murders, Medina today lives with
another woman Sultana, a rape victim, in a rented room in Kaalol
town. She has been threatened that she will be allowed to return to
her village only if she withdraws her complaint.Says Medina: "They
send messengers, who first come with offers of money. They explain
the futility of a court case. If we do not yield, they threaten us."
are approximately 8,000 people from different villages who are
camping in Godhra town's Muslim quarters, besides hundreds others
who are living in Kaalol and Haalol. This is true of other districts
which saw intense rioting last year. According to police officials,
many Muslims feel safer in a town where they can merge with locals
and not be identified. There are 700 families camping in Himmatnagar.
Many more are in other towns like Idar, Modasa and smaller towns
like Vadali and Sabli in north Gujarat.Similarly, hundreds of
Muslims have shifted to small towns in Kheda and Anand districts of
central Gujarat. Points out political scientist Achyut Yagnik:
"There are two dangerous trends in Gujarat today. One is the
communal polarisation, though less visible than during the riots,
and another is rural ghettoisation."
India Today (21 July 2003)
THE NATION: BEST BAKERY TRIAL
By Uday Mahurkar in Vadodara with Sumit Mitra
In India, where the conviction rate in heinous crimes is barely 6 per cent, it doesn't require an exceptional risk-taking ability to get away with murder, literally. More so because controversies over crimes and their punishment, or the lack of it, are seasonal. They come and go. Only some of them stay as landmarks. They put their stamp on the national psyche, either by showing grave errors in public policy or by exposing excesses committed by the executive, the legislators and at times, even the judiciary.
In that sense, the controversy kicked up by Zaheera Sheikh, the 18-year-old daughter of the late Habibullah Sheikh, owner of the Best Bakery in Vadodara, is headed for a long run in the minds of the public. On March 1 last year, on a day a bandh was called by the VHP and the Bajrang Dal in Gujarat in protest against the Godhra carnage, nearly 1,000 rioters swooped down on the bakery-cum-residence. Eleven members of the Sheikh family and three bakery employees were either charred to death or hacked to pieces before being consigned to flames. Zaheera escaped death along with her mother, grandmother and three brothers, by taking shelter on the roof of the building. She became the prosecutor's star witness when in her police complaint she described the attack and named the assailants. However, when the trial began, she denied having named them and said she hadn't witnessed the killings, being on the terrace all the time. After Zaheera's court appearance on May 17, it was the turn of her mother Sehrunissa and younger brother Nafitullah to withdraw their statements. Of the 120 witnesses, only 73 deposed. Of them, 41 backtracked on their police testimonies.
The fast-track court said though the reports of the violence were true, there wasn't enough evidence to convict the accused persons. Judge H.U. Mahida said evidence had been "fabricated" against the accused, and "the police got them signed from the injured". On June 27, in a judgement that created an instant uproar, Mahida acquitted all the 21 accused. National Human Rights Commission Chairman A.S. Anand, a former Chief Justice of India, described the trial as a "miscarriage of justice". Soon after, Zaheera disappeared from Vadodara. Last week, she resurfaced in Mumbai to appear before the media, with human-rights activist Teesta Setalvad in tow and flanked by ad guru Alyque Padamsee and screenplay writer Javed Akhtar. Standing in the arc light of publicity and away from the prying eye of rioters and their agents in Vadodara, she confessed to having lied on oath. She said she had lived under a constant threat to her life from BJP legislator Madhu Srivastava, who had even escorted her to court and back while giving the testimony as he had desired. "Believe me, I had no option," she said and demanded that the case be reopened and retried outside Gujarat.
As Zaheera spoke with extraordinary courage and clarity on national television, her predicament twinged the country's collective conscience. The issues she raked up are galling and undesirable in a civil society supposedly based on the foundation of the rule of law. There were troubling questions over just how sincere the prosecutors, who represented the state Government, were in bringing the perpetrators of the carnage to justice. Why, for instance, did the police not build a strong enough case to indict the accused? What was the prosecution doing while the key witnesses were being threatened? Why didn't the court direct the state to protect the witnesses? Fair trial being an integral part of the constitutional mechanism, is it functioning in Narendra Modi's Gujarat? If not, how should the Centre, governed by the same BJP-led coalition, respond to the problem? The answers, if any, will certainly be disturbing for the nation.
The investigation officer in charge, P.P. Kanani seemed to rely on eyewitness accounts without making any real effort to build a body of supportive evidence that would indict the accused. For a high profile case, where the prestige of the police was at stake, Kanani's superiors hardly made any effort to see if he was doing his job right. In his judgement, Justice Mahida observed, "There was not even an iota of trustworthy evidence in the crime of the accused presented before the court." He described it as a case of producing a dead horse for the prosecutor to flog.
Even the role of the public prosecutor, Raghuvir Pandya, comes in for harsh scrutiny. Zaheera charges Pandya with not even meeting her before she stepped into the witness box. When key witnesses turned hostile, Pandya did not exercise his right to cross-examine them. As witness after witness turned hostile, the public prosecutor didn't find it necessary to seek adjournment and use the extra time to strengthen his case. Or even appeal to the court to take cognisance of these anomalous developments.
The defence, meanwhile, was able to hold its key witnesses together. Lal Mohammed, an eyewitness, told both the police and in court, that far from being hounded, he had been in fact offered sanctuary by two of the main accused in the case, Munna alias Harshad Solanki and Dinesh Rajbar, his neighbours in Hanuman Tekri. Zaheera had named Mohammed as one of the persons who along with Srivastava and his cousin, Congress councillor Chandrakant Srivastava, had threatened her and forced her to turn hostile. Jyotsna Bhat, a widow who lives opposite the Best Bakery, also rubbished Zaheera's claims, maintaining that the local Hindus had tried to save the lives of the local Muslims.
Judge Mahida too has come in for a fair share of criticism for the way he handled the case. Says Justice (retired) Hosbet Suresh of the Citizens for Justice and Peace (CJP): "The least that the judge could do was to hold the trial in camera." Instead, there is a perception that he responded mechanically to a case that was patently unfolding outside the court, in the maze of lanes around Zaheera's house, where, as she said, "those who attacked us were following me".
If the Best Bakery was a test case, the legal system of the state appears to have failed and miserably.
But Best Bakery has turned the spotlights once again on one man and for all the wrong reasons. Chief Minister Narendra Modi now finds himself in the same situation as during the riots in February-March last year-a hero for the strong and strident Hindutva constituency and a villain for everyone else. Anti-Modi campaigners are now trying to whip up a frenzy over the role the Government agencies played in botching the bakery case and its likely bearing on the other four massacre cases being handled by fast-track courts (see box).
But they are not without their dilemmas. The massive victory of the Modi-led BJP in last year's assembly elections, despite the human-rights groups' best efforts to focus the campaign on the post-Godhra riots, is proof perhaps that the more Modi is pushed, the stronger he becomes. Already, Hindutva groups in Gujarat are demanding that if a retrial is ordered for the Best Bakery case, similar action must be taken for past massacres in which Hindus were at the receiving end. Besides, the onslaught of the human rights organisations and the intelligentsia has resulted in various outfits of the Sangh Parivar, not all of them kindly disposed to Modi, closing ranks. Much will, of course, depend on how the Centre, which is ruled by the same party that is in power in Gujarat, responds to any pressure that may build up over the Bakery case.
Judicial opinion in the country is sharply divided on the feasibility of reopening the Best Bakery case. If there is a miscarriage of justice, or so goes the argument, it should be remedied. Senior counsel and former Union law minister Shanti Bhushan charts a road map for the retrial. "The acquittal order has to be set aside by a high court or the Supreme Court on the ground that there has been no fair trial. The Supreme Court may also direct the trial to be held outside Gujarat."
However, the feasibility of a retrial is in serious doubt. N.R. Madhav Menon of the West Bengal University of Juridical Sciences, who is designated as the chief of the National Judicial Academy in Bhopal, thinks a retrial is impossible under the law and an appeal is possible only on the available material. "What were the NGOs which are now demanding reopening of the case doing when the trial was on?" Menon asks. "They should have intervened at that time." He is also sceptical about Zaheera's demand that the case be reopened outside Gujarat. "If that is allowed the Supreme Court may be besieged with requests from parties to transfer their cases from one state to another," he says.
Menon was a member of the committee led by Justice K. Malimath for reforming the criminal justice system. However, Malimath's own views on the case are diametrically opposite. Like Shanti Bhushan, he holds that a retrial is possible in an appellate court which sets aside the acquittal on the ground that the trial at the fast-track court was unfair. "A new trial means a new investigation, with the court not behaving as an umpire but acting as a seeker of truth." He also points at the power of the Supreme Court, under Article 131, to move the case "to any court in any state" where the trial doesn't run the risk of being influenced by "extraneous elements" (meaning local politicians). And Malimath holds that Zaheera is free to overturn her statements in the Vadodara court. "She can say that the replies she gave were due to coercion. If a witness has been under threat, and she can prove that she has been under threat, the court will see her point."
Zaheera is not the first prosecution witness in a riot case to turn hostile. Earlier, there was Satnam Bai who filed a case against H.K.L. Bhagat of the Congress for leading a mob that killed her husband in the 1984 anti-Sikh riots in Delhi. Before trial, Satnam Bai had vividly described Bhagat as the man leading the attackers. As the trial began, she turned hostile and said she was unable to identify Bhagat. In the Best Bakery case, it is the turn of the bjp to get its supporters out of the clutches of law. "The trial process follows political cycles," says senior counsel Anil Divan, "which is all the more the reason why a retrial of the Best Bakery case is necessary. When the regime changes, the case may take a different turn."
In Vadodara, the police obviously lacked the will. There is also an urgent need for a witness protection programme, like in the US or Canada, where threatened witnesses are even given a new identity, complete with a new social welfare number, so that the man can be relocated in a safer place with a new life. Zaheera's capitulation under pressure in a court in Modi-ruled Gujarat and her subsequent confession before the media in the capital of the Congress-ruled Maharashtra, has thrown up a much larger public issue-that of protecting the rule of law from political interference. Her desire to face a new trial outside Gujarat is a shame on Modi's Government, as much as it was a shame on the Congress government that Satnam Bai failed to recognise the rioters who had killed her husband.
FIRST PERSON: ZAHEERA SHEIKH
"I had two options: get justice for slain family members or save those who were living"
Zaheera Sheikh, 18, the complainant and key eyewitness in the Best Bakery case, has been moved to Mumbai by the Citizens for Justice and Peace (CJP) along with her mother Sehrunissa and brothers Nasibullah and Nafitullah. She told India Today Special Correspondent sheela raval how she was threatened, what made her retract her statement and why she is no longer afraid to speak the truth. Excerpts:
"When the court summons came for my mother, younger brother and me, we were confused and scared. We had never seen a court. Who would represent us? As the date neared, the pressure mounted. Our neighbour Lal Mohammed (another key eyewitness) strongly advised me not to speak the truth in the court. He visited us often and said that if we want to live peacefully, we should not make more enemies. He also said people like Bhattu (Congress councillor Chandrakant Srivastava) were not good and might even kill us. He told me that we should think about people who are alive and not about those who were already dead. When I asked him what he would have done if his family had been massacred, he finally gave up his efforts to dissuade us.
Our neighbours also visited us often and told us that tension was again mounting in the area. They said if I chose to narrate what I had seen then I would be putting them in more trouble. We were confused and scared because all sorts of messages and stories were reaching us. But I was determined to get justice for my sister and relatives. On May 17, I set out for the court along with my mother Sehrunissa and younger brother Nasibullah determined to seek justice at any cost. How could I forgive those who ruthlessly slit throats of children and burnt people alive? My mother strongly supported my decision.
As we approached the court, I saw Srivastava alias Bhattu standing near the gate. When we came close, he told me: "Zaheera, soch le kya karna hai. Agar nahi sochegi to bahut bura hoga. (Think about what you have to do. If you don't, you will suffer.) Hamari side pe bolna (You have to take our side). Mera kehna maan le, police bhi bik chuki hai aur tera vakil ab hamara ho gaya hai. (Do as I say. The police have been bribed and your lawyer is now on our side)."
We were completely shaken up. There were Bajrang Dal activists and Srivastava's men following us. Nobody from my community came to our support. My mind was filled with scary thoughts as I was asked to go and meet the sarkari vakil (public prosecutor). I was surprised that this man had never approached us. And nobody had told us that we too had a vakil. Only when I was in the witness box did he introduce himself as Raghuvir Pandya.
The court was jampacked and people were staring at me. Some even made menacing gestures. My mother and brother were waiting outside. I was all alone at that critical moment. I knew I had two options: to get justice for dead family members or save those who were living. When Pandya asked me about the incident, my mind went numb with fear. I had no choice but to lie. Whatever I said in court was false. I would not have given up the fight if even one person from my community had stood by me during the crisis. Members of the relief committee also ditched me when I needed them the most. Main akeli ladki kis kis se ladti (how could I fight all those people alone)?
I came out of the room within half an hour because the public prosecutor did not ask me more than four questions. I felt shattered and very heavy in heart. My mother and brother got to know that I had retracted my statement and also chose not to tell the truth. I went into hiding but when I heard that people were accusing us of "selling out", I was terribly hurt. I came back to clear our name. We have got Rs 90,000 for my sister Sabeera's death and Rs 50,000 for damage to our property from the Gujarat Government and nothing else.
After my retraction, I could not eat or sleep properly for weeks. I would just sit in a corner and cry. The feeling that I didn't fight to get justice for my family was revolting. But I tried to justify my action by telling myself that I did it to save my mother and brothers. I can't afford to lose them too.
Just then, I was approached by some social workers, including Teesta Setalvad, whom I had met on March 2, the day after the massacre. She offered us help and told me that they would get us justice if I told the truth. We thought about it and felt that it was a chance for us to truthfully say what had happened. Today I am not scared because these people are there to protect us. Mumbai is a safer place for us and we can start our life afresh. I would like a retrial outside Gujarat. I have mustered the courage to identify the killers before the court with CJP's help.
On The Fast Track
The Godhra carnage changed Gujarat-politically as well as socially. If Narendra Modi is ruling over Gujarat today it is perhaps a direct fallout of the Godhra case. The chief minister has a high stake in ensuring that his image of being the iron man of the Hindutva brigade is not dented. So his Government has ensured that the investigation into the massacre of 58 Hindus in the Sabarmati Express allegedly by a mob of over 1,000 Muslims on that fateful morning of February 27, 2002, at Godhra railway station is better placed than the rest. Eightyone of a total of 126 accused have been arrested and charged under POTA. Of these 64 are in judicial custody.
Those in judicial custody include the core group of 33, including Bilal Haji, Razak Kurkur and Maulvi Hussein Umarji who are accused of hatching the conspiracy to kill the Ramsevaks on the night of February 26. The core group includes Kurkur's 10 boys who allegedly took petrol to the railway track to set S-6 bogie of the Sabarmati Express afire. Only one major accused, Farooq Bhana, is still absconding.
There are 70 star witnesses in the case, the majority of whom are policemen, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad workers and railway personnel. To support the conspiracy theory the prosecution is relying more on six eye witnesses. The most important among these six is Jabir Biyamin Behera (the only one out of the six who is himself an accused), who played a key role in setting S-6 on fire. Behera gave his statement in an open court stating how the conspiracy was hatched in Kurkur's Aman guest house on February 26 night and how it got the green signal from Umarji, an influential religious leader of the radical Deoband-Tableegh Jamaat movement in Godhra. Says Rakesh Asthana, special inspector-general of police who heads the sit: "We have a fairly strong case against the accused based more on direct, circumstantial and scientific evidence."
— Uday Mahurkar
Will They Go The Best Way
NARODA-PATIYA (Ahmedabad) Toll: 89
SARDARPURA (Mehsana) Toll: 38
It was one of the worst post-Godhra massacres in a rural area. But it appears to be the weakest among all the cases being handled by fast-track courts. All 32 accused obtained bail within a few months of the massacre. The trial is yet to begin. Says a member of an NGO: "If human rights groups don't mount pressure, other cases will go the Best Bakery way."
GULBERG SOCIETY (Ahmedabad) Toll: 42
Second only to Naroda-Patiya in brutality, the Gulberg Society massacre saw the gruesome killing of former Lok Sabha member and Congress leader Ehsan Jaffri in the labour-dominated Meghaninagar locality. The pattern was similar to that in Naroda-Patiya. Trial is about to begin in the case in which 21 out of 28 arrested are out on bail.
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