Tuesday, Sep 16, 2003
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BY REPRIMANDING THE Gujarat Government for not showing seriousness in its appeal against the acquittal of the 21 accused in the Best Bakery burning case, the Supreme Court has validated the apprehension of the National Human Rights Commission and several non-governmental organisations that the victims of the Gujarat carnage in 2002 would not get justice under the Narendra Modi dispensation in the State. The three-judge Bench, headed by Chief Justice V.N. Khare, went to the extent of asking the Modi Government to quit if it was unable to prosecute the guilty in the case. In making such strong remarks against the State Government, the Supreme Court appears to have been provoked by the manner in which the prosecution conducted the case in the fast track trial court in Vadodara. The Bench specifically referred to the failure of the prosecution to cross-examine witnesses who had turned hostile and expressed lack of faith in the prosecution. But more importantly, the apex court described the appeal filed by the State Government as an "eyewash" and pointed to the possibility of collusion between the Government and the prosecution in subverting the cause of justice. While no one expects Mr. Modi to heed the Opposition demand and step down, the `collusion' remark pins the responsibility on him to prove there was no mala fide in the Government's handling of the case.
The issue of possible manipulation of the legal process arose once the crucial witness, Zahira Sheikh, charged that she had been pressured to withdraw her original charges against the accused. Some of the witnesses in the case, including the kin of the victims, had voluntarily deposed before the NHRC and other organisations soon after the bakery was burnt down by a mob on March 1, 2002, killing 14 persons. However, during the trial, the witnesses, accompanied to the court by a BJP MLA whose sympathies were clearly with the accused, went back on their testimony. As the circumstances surrounding the testimony in the trial court gave enough room to suspect intimidation of the witnesses, and the earlier depositions of the same witnesses before independent tribunals and the national media were self-evidently free of any coercion, the unmistakable conclusion was that there had been political interference in the case. The problems of a shoddy investigation were compounded by sloppy prosecution, but the State Government, in its appeal before the High Court against the trial court verdict, refrained from seeking a retrial of the case on the basis of further investigation. Even while the appeal petition argued for the use of the original statements of the hostile witnesses to corroborate circumstantial evidence, it did not mention any such piece of evidence ignored by the trial court. Indeed, the appeal petition, after a long delay, was filed a day before the Supreme Court was to hear a special leave petition filed by the NHRC against the trial court verdict.
Now, with the Supreme Court holding up the options of ordering a CBI inquiry or having an independent agency investigate the matter, it is for the State Government to show cause why the Best Bakery and other cases relating to the 2002 violence should continue to be tried in Gujarat. The Chief Justice voiced his apprehension that the Government would conduct itself in the same manner before the High Court. All this points to what was clear from the beginning: unless a retrial is ordered, allowing witnesses like Zaheera Sheikh another opportunity to depose in circumstances that are not intimidating or hostile, the Best Bakery case is guaranteed to end in miscarriage of justice.
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