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Verdict in Best Bakery case

Print edition : Mar 10, 2006 T+T-
Zaheera Sheikh. The court has issued a show-cause notice to her and her family for turning hostile in court and 'deliberately giving false evidence'.-AFP

Zaheera Sheikh. The court has issued a show-cause notice to her and her family for turning hostile in court and 'deliberately giving false evidence'.-AFP

IN the landmark re-trial of the Vadodara Best Bakery case in Mumbai, the Special Court sentenced nine accused to life imprisonment and acquitted eight. Additional Sessions Judge Abhay Thipsay also issued a show-cause notice to five of the witnesses, Zaheera Sheikh and her family, for turning hostile in court and `deliberately giving false evidence'. This is the first time that there has been a retrial of a case in another State.

The Supreme Court ordered a retrial in Mumbai of the Best Bakery communal violence case, since it felt a fair trial was not possible in Gujarat. Both the Vadodara Sessions Court and the Gujarat High Court had acquitted the accused.

The Best Bakery case became controversial when Zaheera Sheikh and her family admitted publicly that they had lied in the Vadodara Sessions Court. They said that they were intimidated by Bharatiya Janata Party MLA Madhu Shrivastav and his brother Chandu. The family appealed to the Supreme Court for a re-trial outside Gujarat so that they would be safe to testify. But in the Mumbai hearing too, they turned hostile.

Yet, the accused were convicted primarily because of the evidence provided by five more eyewitnesses who testified in Mumbai. Yasmin Sheikh, Zaheera's sister-in-law, and four injured bakery workers were not called as witnesses in the Vadodara trial. But in Mumbai, their statements clinched the verdict. In the Vadodara Court, 68 witnesses had turned hostile, while in Mumbai, only seven of 74 went back on their statements.

"This judgment is a complete vindication of the retrial," said Teesta Setalvad, Human Rights activist who supported Zaheera's appeal in the Supreme Court. "This conviction was based on the same charge-sheet that was produced before the Vadodara court. The same witnesses turned hostile. Yet the court was able to convict some of the accused. This proves that what is important is the atmosphere of the court. In Gujarat, the atmosphere is still not conducive to a fair trial. Many witnesses are still threatened."

When Zaheera and her family turned hostile for the second time, they accused Teesta Setalvad of forcing them to lie in court. However, the Judge said that these accusations were false since the Sheikh family had given statements to the police identifying the accused much before they met Setalvad. "This verdict also sends a strong signal to witnesses that they cannot turn hostile and take the judicial process for granted," said Manjula Rao, Special Public Prosecutor (SPP) appointed for this case. "Zaheera and her family were pawns in a much larger game in which powerful people are involved," added Setalvad.

Fourteen people were killed when a mob set fire to Best Bakery, owned by the Sheikh family in Hanuman Tekdi on March 1, 2002. The judgment has renewed hopes of many victims of Gujarat's communal carnage who are still waiting for justice.

The other trial to be transferred outside Gujarat was that of the Randhikpur mass rape and murder case, which has been investigated by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI). Bilkis Rasool, a woman who was five months pregnant, was gang-raped and watched 14 members of her family being killed.

The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) also filed a case before the Supreme Court asking for retrials outside the State of 14 cases, including those relating to the burning of the Sabarmati Express at Godhra and the violence at Naroda Patiya, Naroda Gaam, Gulbarg Society, Sardarpura village and Ode village. The court stayed the trials in Gujarat and its decision is now awaited.

The judgment has embarrassed the Gujarat government. Though a landmark verdict, it is only a step towards justice. Only the small fry who were part of the mob, have been convicted. Those who incited and planned the pogrom are still free and in positions of power.

Dionne Bunsha