Zahira's somersault

Published : Dec 03, 2004 00:00 IST

Zahira Sheikh addressing a press conference in Vadodara on November 3. -

Zahira Sheikh addressing a press conference in Vadodara on November 3. -

The shocking turnaround by the star witness in the Best Bakery case has raised concerns about the effectiveness of the re-trial.

THE heroine has caved in. Days before her testimony in the re-trial of the Best Bakery case being held in Mumbai, the star witness Zahira Sheikh did a second volte-face, saying that she was forced by social activist Teesta Setalvad to make "false statements against innocent people".

The police's first information report was based on Zahira's eyewitness account of the massacre that occurred during the post-Godhra communal carnage in Gujarat. Fourteen people were burnt to death on March 1, 2002, when a mob set fire to the Best Bakery, owned by her family, situated below their house. Zahira was the most vociferous witness in the case. Now, she has contradicted her statement once again and has filed an affidavit before the Vadodara District Collector "seeking protection from Teesta Setalvad and others of her NGO [non-governmental organisation] while testifying in the retrial". Teesta Setalvad denied the charges saying that they were "a pack of lies". She said she was shocked by Zahira's statement but preferred not to comment as the matter was sub judice.

Zahira's police statements soon after the incident gave details of all that she saw from her house. She was vociferous in her demand for justice and even submitted her testimony to the National Human Rights Commission. Zahira surprised many when she turned hostile in the fast-track court in Vadodara and said that she did not see anything. The Sessions Court acquitted the 21 accused in the case.

A few weeks later, she arrived in Mumbai and said that she lied under oath because local Bharatiya Janata Party leader Madhu Srivastav threatened her. Zahira was given protection in Mumbai by Teesta Setalvad who helped her file an appeal in the Supreme Court asking for a re-trial outside Gujarat. The Supreme Court granted her request and ordered a re-trial in Mumbai, as it felt that a fair trial was not possible in Gujarat. The Best Bakery case was a landmark case, as it was probably the first in which the Supreme Court ordered a re-trial outside a State.

The trial is under way in Mumbai and the prosecution has already examined 27 witnesses, including two eyewitnesses. Zahira was scheduled to testify in the next few weeks. However, she suddenly appeared in Vadodara and changed her stand once again at a press conference organised by Ahmedabad-based lawyer Jal Unwala at a five-star hotel. The details of how Zahira reached Vadodara and who paid to get her there remain unclear. After the press conference, she was put up at a club opposite the High Court in Ahmedabad and was provided police security.

Zahira denied that she was ever threatened by Madhu Srivastav and said that the Sessions Court judgment acquitting the 13 accused was "correct". Asked about the petition filed by Teesta Setalvad in the Supreme Court, Zahira said: "She had drafted the petition in English and had told me that it was regarding the Best Bakery property and got my signature in it. I was not even aware that she was filing a petition in the Supreme Court." However, Zahira's lawyer Mihir Desai pointed out that Zahira was present in the Supreme Court during one of the hearings.

"I did not want to lie and punish innocent people. I do not want to lie any further in the holy month of Ramzan. I need protection from Teesta Setalvad's threats," Zahira said at the press conference. She also alleged that Teesta Setalvad kept her locked in a flat in Andheri for seven months. However, Frontline learned that Zahira fell out with Teesta Setalvad and had been living with her sister in Mumbai since December 2003. She had even written to the Police Commissioner saying that she did not want police protection. Around the time of her testimony, Zahira demanded that Teesta Setalvad's organisation give her a flat and a bakery in Mumbai, said the public prosecutor Manjula Rao. Several witnesses feel that NGOs helping them are getting funds to support them and fight their cases, and are demanding a larger share of the pie.

When asked why she did not complain against Teesta Setalvad to the Mumbai police, Zahira said: "We had approached Victoria Terminus police but they did not file a complaint and we were threatened by her men when we stepped out of the police station." She reiterated that her original testimony before the fast-track court here was absolutely true and that Teesta Setalvad was pressurising her to name innocent persons as accused during the retrial.

How will Zahira's new U-turn affect the re-trial? "There are other witnesses who have identified some of the accused, so the case stands without Zahira and her family," says Mihir Desai. "However, her credibility is totally damaged now and the court is likely to doubt her statement."

ON the day of Zahira's press conference, Manjula Rao told the trial court that Nafitullah Sheikh, Zahira's brother and a key witness, gave the police the slip and disappeared on October 24, from the government Guest House where he was lodged.

Zahira's reversal may also affect other cases. Witnesses have been under constant pressure to back down and compromise. The threats may intensify as the Sangh Parivar is likely to be more emboldened by its victory in getting Zahira, an icon of the Gujarat communal violence cases, to back down.

Chief Minister Narendra Modi was quick to use the opportunity to discredit NGOs. The next day, he stated that the credibility of NGOs should be looked into further.

"Zahira's betrayal is going to send a wrong signal to all the social and human rights organisations supporting the witnesses. They will be afraid to get involved in cases and support witnesses for fear that they too may be bought off and retract their statements," said a lawyer in Ahmedabad.

"It is a much larger plan to discredit riot witnesses at a time when the Supreme Court has been ordering re-trials and re-investigation of more than 2,000 cases that the police closed without proper scrutiny," says Rohit Prajapati, a human rights activist in Vadodara.

Zahira's petition before the Supreme Court set a good precedent for other riot cases. Will her somersault also set a trend for other witnesses to follow suit?

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