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Zahira was paid money, claims Tehelka

NEW DELHI, DEC. 22. In yet another twist to the Best Bakery case, a sting operation carried out by the Tehelka newspaper captured controversial BJP MLA, Madhu Srivastava, purportedly saying that the key witness, Zahira Sheikh, was paid Rs. 18 lakhs to turn hostile in the case — in which all the 21 accused were acquitted by a fast-track court in Vadodara, Gujarat, in July last year.

A 10-minute video tape recording this and various other aspects of the spycam operation was played at a press conference here by Tarun Tejpal, its Editor-in-Chief.

In the tape, claimed to have been shot over the last one month, Mr. Srivastava's cousin and Congress councillor, Chandrakant Batthoo Srivastava, was shown as saying that the Gujarat Government had ``100 per cent'' given Zahira money to turn hostile for the second time — during the ongoing retrial in Mumbai. Asked by the Vadodara corporator, Nisar Bapu, whose conversations with other politicians were caught on camera by the Tehelka reporter, how much money had been paid to Zahira, Madhu replied ``Rs. 18 lakh''. Mr. Tejpal said that Mr. Bapu did not know that the discussion was being recorded by a spy-cam. Batthoo claimed they were "totally innocent." The tape, whose audio quality was not good, showed Batthoo commenting that Zahira and her family had themselves approached Madhu for money.

Batthoo is heard saying: "The whole family would keep going to Madhu again and again, time and again. Do this for us, do this, our bakery will get started again, this will happen. Drove us up the wall. Then finally, Madhu took the decision that `let us give her money.' First, it started from Rs. 25 lakhs and got stuck at Rs. 18 lakhs to Rs. 20 lakhs. Then after collecting cash from everyone, she was given Rs. 18 lakhs in cash."

Asked by Bapu whether the Gujarat Government had paid about Rs. 35 lakhs to Zahira to turn hostile the second time, Batthoo replies: "The money would have been given 100 per cent. She had gone there for the money as well.

Teesta Setalvad of the Citizens for Justice and Peace, who was instrumental in starting the re-trial in the Best Bakery case, said: "We have already approached the Supreme Court for a CBI probe into the whole matter. We are also open to investigations." She said she would prefer to adopt a "wait-and-watch" approach as the matter was sub-judice. The Tehelka tape also showed Zahira's grandmother Zareena Shahu who, according to Mr. Tejpal, was present at Best Bakery on the night on March 1, 2002, when a mob killed 14 people in it. ``We were all upstairs. Zahira was there. I was there, and there were people from Allahabad and Bahraich. We were there till 10 and we folded our hands and begged, saying "don't kill us." The men kept coming and they kept killing,'' the tape showed her as saying. Mr. Tejpal said the fact that Zahira's grandmother recounted the events of that night just as Zahira did the first time to the police also exposed her. He said his organisation had shown "only limited clips [to the media today]. We have lots of footage." Asked whether any inducements had been given in this case as in the Army deal expose, he replied in the negative.

PTI

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