The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Riot retrial away from ‘Neros’ glare

New Delhi, April 12: The Supreme Court today brought a sledgehammer down on the Gujarat government, issuing a series of unparalleled directives that nudged the riots of 2002 back to centrestage on the eve of elections.

By the time the court was through this afternoon, the acquittals in the Best Bakery carnage stood quashed, a retrial was ordered outside Gujarat and those who looked the other way were labelled “modern-day Neros”.

Indicting the Gujarat government of “subversion of the justice delivery system”, the division bench of Justices Doraiswamy Raju and Arijit Passayat ordered the fresh trial in a “competent court” in Maharashtra.

“Keeping in view the peculiar circumstances of the case and the ample evidence on record glaringly demonstrating subversion of the justice delivery system with no congenial and conducive atmosphere still prevailing, we direct that the retrial shall be done by a court under the jurisdiction of Bombay High Court,” the bench said.

The judges added: “The modern-day Neros were looking elsewhere when Best Bakery and innocent children and helpless women were burning, and were probably deliberating how the perpetrators of the crime can be saved or protected.”

The damning comments compelled the Congress to revive the demand for chief minister Narendra Modi’s dismissal. The Congress has been smarting under Modi’s persistent attacks on Sonia Gandhi but the party was somewhat reluctant to make the riots a campaign issue in the light of the polarisation that handed the BJP a landslide in the Gujarat Assembly election.

The Congress sought to take the issue beyond Modi and said it would cite the court censure to corner the chief minister’s “patrons” — a veiled reference to the BJP’s central leadership.

The BJP stood by Modi, refusing to acknowledge the judgment as an “indictment” of the Modi government. “If a witness turns hostile and alleges that she has been pressurised, how can you drag the chief minister into it'” party spokesperson Arun Jaitley asked.

Modi, who ironically was in Godhra — the fountainhead of the Gujarat carnage — was not in a pleasant mood this evening. Jignesh Parikh, a Gujarat journalist, said he was “pushed roughly” by the chief minister when approached for a reaction to the court’s comments.

The Supreme Court also called into question the public prosecutor’s role, removed the official and directed Maharashtra to appoint a new prosecutor.

The judgment marked a first in the history of Indian jurisprudence. The bench gave the “affected persons” the option to suggest a new public prosecutor.

“Though the witnesses or the victims do not have any choice in the normal course to have a say in the matter of appointment of a public prosecutor, in view of the unusual factors noticed in this case, to accord such liberties to the complainants’ party would be appropriate,” the judges said.

The judges also expunged “irresponsible” remarks made by the high court against activist Teesta Setalvad and the National Human Rights Commission. Both were instrumental in helping Zahira Sheikh, the key witness whose family members were among the 14 killed in the bakery riot, move the Supreme Court and declare that threats made her lie in the high court.

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