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‘Liar’ barb fired at Zahira

New Delhi, Aug. 29: Zahira Sheikh, key Gujarat riot witness, was “induced” with money by BJP politicians to turn hostile, a Supreme Court-appointed inquiry committee has found.

The panel has accused Zahira, who has kept changing her testimony on the March 2002 Best Bakery massacre, of telling “lies” before the Mumbai fast-track court retrying the case, the National Human Rights Commission and the Supreme Court.

The report, submitted to a division bench today, accuses the BJP MLA from Vadodara, Madhu Srivastava, of “inducing” Zahira with money. It mentioned several other BJP leaders in this connection but their names weren’t made public by the court.

All the accused in the massacre ' in which more than a dozen Muslims were allegedly killed by a mob ' were acquitted by a Gujarat court after the witnesses turned hostile. But Zahira, encouraged by social activist Teesta Setalvad, came forward and alleged that the witnesses had been silenced by threats from saffron activists. The National Human Rights Commission then moved the apex court, which ordered a retrial in Mumbai.

But Zahira again turned hostile, claiming Setalvad had extracted statements from her through trickery and blackmail to revive the case. The activist alleged Zahira had been bought off.

Faced with such confusion, the Chief Justice of India had the probe committee set up in January, with apex court registrar general B.M. Gupta at its head.

After the report was handed in sealed covers to the bench of Justices Arijit Passayat and H.K. Sema, copies were given to the parties to the case, including Zahira, Setalvad and the Gujarat government.

The court said it “is not accepting the report” straight away and told the parties to file replies so that arguments on its “acceptability or otherwise” can start on October 24. Unless the court, after hearing the arguments, attests the report as acceptable, it cannot be used in the trial court.

The report accuses Rajendra Trivedi, a defence counsel in the Best Bakery case, and his junior Atul Mistry of getting Zahira to turn hostile. It says Surat police commissioner Sudhir Sinha tried to intrude into the committee’s sittings, apparently to put pressure on it.

The committee has examined video footage, supplied by Tehelka, purportedly showing Srivastava arranging money to pay off Zahira and her family. The report also says the MLA had “fired with his licensed firearm in front of the press reporters and media” during a news conference.

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