Off the hook

Published : Jul 18, 2003 00:00 IST

The court lets off the accused in the Best Bakery massacre case as prosecution witnesses turn hostile.

in Vadodara

FIRST it was the police. And now, a handful of witnesses have let alleged killers off the hook. With the main witnesses turning hostile in the Best Bakery massacre case, the Sessions Court in Vadodara acquitted all 21 accused on June 27, 2003. The Judge ruled that there was insufficient evidence. During the court hearings, key witnesses went back on their statements.

On March 1, 2002, 14 persons were burned to death in the bakery, when the post-Godhra riots in Gujarat began. Workers and members of the Sheikh family, which owned the bakery and lived above it, were killed. Zahira Sheikh, the main complainant, had described the attack and named the accused in her police statement. However, when the trial began, she denied she had named the accused or witnessed the incident. Her family members too backtracked on their police complaints. Before Zahira testified, her elder sister Sahera and brother Nafitullah had turned hostile. After Zahira's court appearance, her mother Serunissa and younger brother Nafibullah also retracted their statements. They said they were unable to identify any person in the mob. Lal Mohammed, a resident in their neighbourhood, had earlier identified the accused. But in court, he did a complete U-turn and described how the accused took care of his family that night.

There were 120 witnesses. Only 73 deposed, of whom 41 backtracked on their police testimonies.

The fast-track court ruled that although the details regarding the incident were true, there was not enough evidence to prove that the accused had committed the crime. "It comes out very clearly that evidence has been fabricated against the accused," said Sessions Judge H.U. Mahida. He added that in riot cases, weak and inadequate investigations are common. The police reach the spot after the culprits have escaped and then pick up bystanders and name them as the accused, the judgment said. "It seems police fabricated the statements and got them signed from the injured," the court ruled. "Even though doctors deposed that the injured had clearly narrated the details of the incident to them, the prosecution has submitted before the court that the injured were not in a position to do so. This is unacceptable to the court," the judgment stated. Throughout the trial, the prosecution remained ineffective and weak.

When the verdict was delivered, none of the Sheikh family members attended court. However, local BJP MLA Madhu Shrivastava was present. He had escorted Zahira to the court when she testified in May 2003. Srivastava allegedly mediated a settlement between the witnesses and the accused. The witnesses allegedly changed their stand because of both fear and a payoff. Soon after Zahira completed testifying in court, Srivastava escorted her out. Since then she has disappeared from Vadodara. After the court ruling came, her brother told reporters that she had married and shifted to Delhi. "What else can you expect when the government doesn't provide riot victims any security or adequate compensation?" asked a lawyer. Earlier, Zahira had spoken out boldly against the accused. She demanded justice when the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) and Election Commission (E.C.) teams visited the State. "I won't marry till the accused are punished," she told a newspaper in an interview on February 27, 2003.

The first information report (FIR) was based on her complaint. At several points in time, she provided the police with detailed testimonies against the accused. The police took her statement soon after the incident, when she was admitted to hospital.

The Best Bakery case was one of the five communal violence cases that the NHRC recommended should be referred to the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI). The other cases are the Sabarmati Express burning case (Godhra, 59 killed), the Naroda Patiya case (Ahmedabad, 83 killed), the Gulbarg Society case (Ahmedabad, 42 murdered) and the Sardarpura case (Sabarkantha, 38 killed). However, the Gujarat government did not act on these recommendations. Trials in the other four cases have not yet started.

Right from the start, cases relating to the communal violence have been fraught with problems. Initially, the police refused to take down statements. When they did register complaints, they did not include all the details mentioned by the witnesses. They did not record the names of the accused mentioned by witnesses. Moreover, the police filed group FIRs instead of separate cases for each complaint. Already, the police have closed around half of the 4,252 cases, citing lack of evidence. These cases will not be tried in court. Other trials have also resulted in acquittals. In Panchmahal district, two tempos carrying refugees from Kadiad village in Sabarkantha were burned en route, killing 73 persons. The case was closed six months ago. "Not a single person was named as an accused, although witnesses had given the police names of the culprits. Around 50 families from Kadiad are still living in a relief camp in Modasa," says Suhel Tirmizi, human rights lawyer. Several accused are apparently `absconding'. However, they roam around freely in the villages, harassing Muslim survivors.

The police have the power to attach the property of those `absconding'. They did that for those accused of the Sabarmati Express massacre, but have not made much of an effort to arrest the riot accused or attach their property. The police have also charged those accused in the Godhra case under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA). But none of the accused in the pogrom against Muslims has been charged under the Act.

In rural Gujarat, trials are even more of a farce. "Prosecutors are playing the role of the defence. They make sure the case falls through. One fell asleep during the second half of a trial. There is no decorum in the court. People jeer while witnesses relate incidents of rape or murder. The accused keep shouting that they will be freed," said Navaz Kotval from the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative. In the trial of the Eral village massacre in Panchmahal (seven killed), the Judge insisted that all 32 witnesses appear at the same time or else the trial would not continue. Last year, security was paralysed in Gujarat. Now justice follows suit.

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