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Zahira knocks on rights panel door

New Delhi, July 12: Best Bakery witness Zahira Sheikh has appealed to the National Human Rights Commission for help to reopen the case in which all 21 accused recently walked away free.

Zahira, who had seen 14 people being burnt alive in front of the bakery during the Gujarat riots, yesterday told the NHRC she had turned hostile in court fearing for her life and her family.

Armed with a recording of Zahira’s statement and a report from the team sent to Vadodara to look into details of the case, the NHRC looks set to step in.

Although no formal decision has been taken yet, the commission has decided to consult eminent lawyers for tips on how to proceed.

“She has sought the help of the commission to reopen the case. Her statement has been placed on record by the commission,” an NHRC statement released today said.

“Among other things, she stated that under threat to her life and life of the remaining members of her family, she has resiled in the trial court from the earlier statements made by her.”

The fast-track court had been forced to acquit the accused after Zahira refused to identify the accused and clammed up about the March 1 killings last year. All other witnesses followed suit. But Zahira later retracted her statement at a news conference in Mumbai, saying she had been afraid to tell the truth.

At an NHRC meeting yesterday, an interim report was submitted by the team that went to Gujarat earlier this week. The team has asked for more time to submit the full findings as much of the material given to them is in Gujarati and has to be translated.

The NHRC has come under criticism from some sections for not doing enough, especially as commission chairman A.S. Anand has said the acquittals were a “miscarriage of justice”.

The commission had also said: “The Gujarat government must appeal against the verdict and if it does not, the relatives of the victims and complainants can also seek permission of the court and file an appeal against the acquittal.”

But commission officials rebutted criticism of Justice Anand, saying the NHRC had been constantly monitoring the situation. It had also written to the Gujarat director-general of police to protect witnesses who were being threatened when reports of intimidation first came out.

“If witnesses turn hostile, there is little the NHRC can do,” said a source. “Now that she has retracted what she said to the fast-track court, we have taken note of it.

“We will do what we have to according to the powers that laid down for the commission by the Protection of Human Rights Act, 1993,” he said.

The act of 1993 says: “The commission shall perform all or any of the following functions, namely: inquire, suo motu or on a petition presented to it by a victim or any person on his behalf, into complaint of (i) violation of human rights or abetment thereof or (ii) negligence in the prevention of such violation.”

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