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Protect riot victims, witnesses, says SC
Issues notices to Centre, Gujarat in Best Bakery case
Our Legal Correspondent

New Delhi, August 8
Taking cognizance of the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) petition challenging the acquittal of all 21 accused in the Best Bakery case relating to killing of 14 persons during the Gujarat riots in Vadodara and seeking a fresh probe and retrial into it outside the state, the Supreme Court today issued notices to the Centre and the Gujarat government.

Accepting emotionally charged but forceful arguments by senior advocates P.P. Rao and T.R. Andhyarujina, appearing for the NHRC, who elaborated on how a fast-track court in Vadodara had “erred” in conducting a “fair trial”, a three-judge Bench, headed by Chief Justice V.N. Khare, converted the petition into a public interest litigation (PIL), observing that the case was a reflection on the entire criminal justice system of the country.

Directing the Centre and the Gujarat government to submit their replies within two weeks and the NHRC to file counter-affidavits within a week thereafter, the Bench, having Mr Justice S.B. Sinha and Mr Justice Arun Kumar as the other judges, sought photocopies of the appeal filed by the state government in the Gujarat High Court against the trial court order to know its contents and the grounds for challenging the acquittals.

Indicating that it might monitor the trial in other riot cases in Gujarat, the apex court directed the Centre and the state government to provide adequate protection to the witnesses, their families and the victims of the Best Bakery case as well as those of other cases.

However, the court made it clear that any effective order on the NHRC plea regarding the Best Bakery case could not be passed at this stage as the state government had filed an appeal in the High Court, which had the power to order a fresh investigation through an independent agency.

The court also sought the photocopies of the affidavits filed by the Best Bakery case victims and their relatives in the fast-track court and the statements given by them to the police earlier during the investigation.

It also sought details from the Centre regarding the steps taken by it to implement the recommendations of the Justice Malimath committee report regarding improving the criminal justice system, especially protection of witnesses to prevent them from turning hostile under duress and allurement.

However, the court declined to pass any direction on another petition of the NHRC seeking transfer of nine other riot cases, including the burning of a bogie of the Sabarmati Express on February 27, 2002, in Godhra in which 59 persons were killed and which was the main cause for sparking of the riots in the state.

At the very outset of the hearing when Chief Justice Mr Khare enquired from the NHRC counsel that how the petition was maintainable when the state had filed an appeal in the High Court, Mr Rao said “mere filing of the appeal is not enough as its consequences are only going to prove a mere eyewash” in the face of “shoddy” investigation by the state police.

Mr Rao said the NHRC had sought transfer of the cases for probe into all major riot cases, including the Best Bakery case, to the CBI in April last year, indicating that the state police had not investigated them properly. However, the Gujarat government did not give its consent for this.


Zahira moves Supreme Court for case transfer

New Delhi, August 8
Zahira Habibullah Sheikh, a key witness in the Best Bakery case, today moved the Supreme Court, seeking a retrial of the case at any place outside Gujarat, and alleged that “crucial evidence was shut out through threats and intimidation” given on behalf of the accused.

Zahira, who figures in the list of petitioners in the plea filed by an NGO, the Citizens for Justice and Peace, headed by Teesta Shetalvad, said the trial court verdict of June 27 should be set aside by the apex court as there had been a serious miscarriage of justice.

The petition was mentioned by counsel Aparna Bhatt before a Bench comprising Chief Justice V.N. Khare, Mr Justice S.B. Sinha and Mr Justice Arun Kumar when it was hearing the NHRC petition on the same issue. However, the court said it would deal with the petition as and when it got listed for hearing.

Referring to 37 of the 41 witnesses turning hostile, including herself, in the case, she alleged that “the eyewitnesses had not identified the perpetrators of the ghastly crime only because of threats, intimidation and hostile environment within the court as well as in Gujarat generally.” — PTI

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