India: Landmark judgement - Best Bakery case

The Hindu
"I am satisfied," commented Teesta Setalvad, the "judge has conducted the retrial in a fair and transparent manner."
The Best Bakery case was the first case related to communal violence that had been transferred to another state for retrial.
After the fast track court in Vadodara acquitted 21 people in the case on June 27, 2003, Zahira Sheikh, one of the main eyewitnesses, approached Ms. Teesta Setalvad of Citizens For Justice and Peace (CJP) to take up her cause.

"I am very satisfied with the outcome. It is a judicial vindication of our demand for a retrial," Ms. Setalvad said on Friday, after the judgment. She said that the judge had conducted the retrial in a fair and transparent manner and took it to its logical conclusion.

The case relates to the incident on the night of March 1, 2002, when an armed mob attacked Best Bakery in Hanuman Tekri area of Vadodara and set it ablaze, killing 12 persons including four children. Two others were also burnt to death in the incident but their bodies were not found. Zahira's sister, Sabira perished in the incident along with her uncle and other relatives. Some workers in the bakery were also killed by the mob.

Zahira and her family were among the 37 witnesses who had turned hostile. She and her mother Sehrunissa later said the family was threatened against giving evidence by BJP legislator Madhu Srivastav.

Zahira had also testified before the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) as well as the then Chief Election Commissioner, James Lyngdoh. After the NHRC and the CJP filed a special leave petition in the Supreme Court, the apex court on April 12, 2004, ordered a re-trial of the case in Mumbai.

The apex court had ordered a day-to-day trial, which was to be completed by December 31, 2004. Additional Sessions Judge Mr. Abhay Thipsay was appointed to conduct the retrial at a special court in Mazgaon in South Mumbai. Four extensions were sought, the last of which was to end on February 28.

The charge sheet in the retrial was filed on September 22 and it began on October 4, 2004. Seventy-five witnesses were examined, seven of whom, turned hostile. Over 3,000 pages of evidence were recorded. In the trial in Gujarat, 73 witnesses were examined but the prosecution neither kept the investigation officer P.P. Kanani informed about the case nor did it call the bakery workers who were eyewitnesses to testify.

In the re-trial too, Zahira and her family turned hostile and on November 2, she held a press conference in Vadodara where she accused Ms. Setalvad of coercing her and her family at knifepoint to press charges against the accused. The re-trial was marked by much court room drama with Zahira, her mother and sister Sahira refusing to testify along with her brothers Nasibullah and Nafitullah.

However, special public prosecutor, Manjula Rao, said that this did not mar the case in any way and she had managed to produce four eyewitnesses who worked at the bakery who had not been examined at Vadodara. The evidence given by Zahira's sister-in-law, Yasmin, the first wife of Nafitullah, was contested by the defence saying she was not present on March 1.

The common thread in both trials was that the same charge sheet was used and witnesses turned hostile in both places. However, in Mumbai, only Zahira's family and two panchas turned hostile. Ms. Setalvad said there would have been a 100 per cent conviction if Zahira and her family had supported the case. "It's a big game being played by the Gujarat government. At least we have ensured the due process of law has been followed," she added.

Adhik Shirodkar, senior counsel, said that an appeal would be filed as soon as they get a copy of the full order. He said the appeal could be filed in Gujarat as only the re-trial has been transferred to Mumbai. Mr. Thipsay said that it could take up to a month to transcribe the whole order.

Copyright © 2006, The Hindu - 27/02/06