The demand by key witnesses to reopen some of the riot-related cases in Gujarat raises doubts about the impartiality of the judicial process with respect to the communal violence.in Mumbai
ZAHIRA SHEIKH, the key witness who turned hostile in Vadodara's Best Bakery murder case, has created a stir by raising questions about the judicial process with respect to the communal riots in Gujarat. She emerged from hiding after the Judge freed all the 21 accused citing insufficient evidence.
"I lied in court because I was under pressure," she said at a press conference in Mumbai. "I was intimidated by the Bharatiya Janata Party MLA Madhu Shrivastav and his cousin Congress councillor Chandrakant Shrivastav. He threatened to kill my family if I spoke the truth. I want the case to be tried again outside Gujarat," she said.
Zahira lost two members of her family when their bakery was burned in the violence that rocked Gujarat in the wake of the Godhra train tragedy on February 27. Fourteen people were killed in the incident. The police complaint was based on her statement in which she identified several accused. From her home, located above the bakery, she had seen the mob reduce their lives to ashes. But in the court she denied her police testimonies, saying that she had seen nothing. She left the court room, escorted by Madhu Shrivastav.
So why has Zahira emerged after the verdict was passed? "After my testimony, I went to our village in Uttar Pradesh. When we came back, we heard accusations that we had taken money. That is why I decided to clear our name. We did not get anything. No one helped us. Not even the relief committee. They asked us to pay Rs.4 lakhs for a lawyer," said Zahira.
She did not say much more. The citizen's group that brought her to the press meet were in a dilemma. Its members were worried that her legal case would be jeopardised if she spoke beyond a point. Instead, celebrities on the panel fielded questions and spoke on her behalf. It did not matter to them that they had never met her until then.
A day before the press conference, The Indian Express interviewed Zahira's mother Sehrunissa, who was also a witness in the case. Explaining how Shrivastav intimidated her family, she said, "Several times he sent threats through others. He called us to threaten us as well. He warned that if we told the truth in court, we would be killed and that Zahira would not be allowed to reach the court. In fear, we retracted our statements." (Abhishek Kapoor and Ayesha Khan, The Indian Express, July 6, 2003.)
Another witness, Lal Mohammed, who lived nearby and whose house was also burned, threatened the Sheikhs not to speak up in court, Sehrunissa added. Lal Mohammed also turned hostile in court. He testified that one of the accused actually rescued his family. When a National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) team visited Vadodara on July 8, he told it that all the 21 accused had saved him and several other Muslims. He told the team that Zahira was "now being used by vested interests". After Zahira's disclosure, many like Lal Mohammed, the Shrivastavs and the public prosecutor have been publicly embarrassed. Madhu Shrivastav threatened to sue Zahira. He told Frontline, "She has made false accusations. I have never seen her except in the court where she was wearing a burkha. After giving her testimony, she went home with her family." However, Zahira was seen leaving the courtroom escorted by Shrivastav. He was quoted as saying, "I accompanied her here only because she received threats. After that, I don't know anything about her." (Abhishek Kapoor, The Indian Express, June 28, 2003.) At the press conference, Zahira admitted, "We were all scared. My brother told me to get into Shrivastav's car. So I went." Zahira is now adamant on getting justice. Her lawyer, Mihir Desai, said: "The Public Prosecutor met her for the first time in the court room itself. There were no efforts to ensure the safety of such a vulnerable witness. The public prosecutor did not even bother to cross-examine her or ask for an adjournment once Zahira and other witnesses turned hostile. We are asking for a re-trial in a non-hostile atmosphere. We would also like a Special Public Prosecutor appointed."
When contacted by Frontline, Raghuvir Pandya, the Public Prosecutor, refused to comment.
In most district courts in Gujarat, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) has strong support amongst the lawyers. In Vadodara, lawyers filed a contempt of court case against the NHRC for describing the Best Bakery judgment as a case of `miscarriage of justice'. In the case relating to the violence in Sardarpura village in Mehsana district, where 33 people were burned alive, the witnesses have asked for a Special Public Prosecutor. The current District Public Prosecutor is Dilip Trivedi, the general secretary of the VHP. In Ahmedabad, the newly appointed district government pleader was acquitted in a case relating to a 1987 communal riot in which nine people were burned alive. In the 2002 carnage, it was mainly the VHP that carried out the massacres.
The Best Bakery case is one of the first to be tried in the fast-track courts set up to deal with riot cases.
Ironically, another fast-track court in Gandhinagar acquitted all 22 persons accused of looting a farmhouse in Pimplaj. The verdict came on the same day as the Best Bakery judgment was passed. In this case too, the victim, Mohammad Noor Fakir Mohammad, turned hostile.
The entire system seems to be working against the riot-affected. Initially, the police refused to take down statements. When they did register complaints, the police 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 (First Information Reports) 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 any court.
Shoddy police investigations have ensured that even the few cases that did make it to the court ended in acquittals. Witnesses to Ahmedabad's Chamanpura massacre are asking for a re-investigation into the case. They alleged that the police did not take down their testimonies properly, deliberately omitting details and the names of the accused. Around 67 people, including former Congress(I) MP Ehsan Jaffrey, were burned alive in the massacre.
The police have closed several cases without bothering to investigate them. In Randhikpur village, a mob mass-raped and killed 18 members of a family. The culprits were yet to be apprehended. The sole survivor and witness of the massacre is a 19-year-old girl. She was raped (when she was pregnant) and her two-year-old daughter was killed. Although she testified, naming the accused, the police closed the case citing insufficient evidence. They stated that the mental condition of the witness was "unstable".
Witnesses who dared to name powerful leaders were put behind bars. Twelve residents of Naroda Gaam in Ahmedabad testified alleging that Bharatiya Janata Party MLA Dr. Maya Kodnani and VHP president Dr. Jaideep Patel had their roles in one of the worst massacres in Gujarat. Six months later, in September, the police jailed all the 12 witnesses as accused in a murder that occurred in March 2002. When the case was filed, the names of the deceased or the accused were not known. Two of the accused were yet to secure bail.
The police have not arrested several of the accused in various riot cases in the State; the records say that they are apparently `absconding'. However, they roam around freely in the villages, harassing the victims.
"If the government really wants to, it can do a lot. It can seal the property of all the accused who are `absconding', like they did in the Godhra case," says Mihir Desai. "Why should witnesses turn hostile? Why can't they ensure their safety? The law allows judges to threaten hostile witnesses with a jail sentence. They can make use of this as well. But what justice can one expect when the prosecutors, many of whom are VHP members, are siding with the accused?"
In Panchmahal district, which saw some of the worst violence, all 26 cases tried until February had resulted in acquittals, Narsimha Komar, Superintendent of Police of Panchmahal, told Frontline in February 2003. In the Pandharvada village massacre, in which 21 people were murdered, all 15 accused were acquitted. In the Limbdia Chowkdi case, 12 people were arrested for setting on fire and killing 15 persons while they were escaping from an attack on their village. The court acquitted all of them.
Public prosecutors could not care less about the victims in cases such as the Best Bakery case. In the Kalol court, a Public Prosecutor fell asleep during the second half of a trial. It is intimidating enough for witnesses to show up in court. When they do, crowds jeer while witnesses narrate incidents of rape or murder. In the trial of the Eral village massacre in Panchmahal, the judge insisted that all the 32 witnesses appear at the same time, or else the trial would not continue. Getting to the court is intimidating enough for the victims, and having to travel 60 km to the court more than 20 times is sheer torture.
In Gujarat, most victims remain in hiding, still threatened by the `absconders'. It is very rare that a Zahira would dare to speak out in such a situation.