Feb. 25: Zahira Sheikh, the centre of attraction in the Best Bakery case, seems untraceable.
The Mumbai sessions court, which yesterday convicted nine persons for the Vadodara bakery carnage during the Gujarat riots, has issued perjury notices to Zahira, her mother Shehrunnisa, sister Saira and brothers Naseebullah and Nafitullah.
They have been asked to file replies by March 20 to the showcause notices that ask why they should not be prosecuted for lying under oath.
If found guilty of perjury, a person is liable to be sentenced for up to seven years and pay a fine.
The Sheikh family, which was reported to have gone back to Vadodara after their deposition in court ' all of them turned hostile ' has not been seen for several months.
Only Zahira’s older brother Nafitullah, who is suffering from cancer, has been visiting Nair Hospital in central Mumbai from time to time.
“I last met them five months ago,” said Atul Mistry, the family’s lawyer, from Vadodara.
He said they needed to reply to the court now and required legal advice. Mistry conceded that it was strange his clients had not tried to get in touch with him after the verdict.
If the lawyer says he is flummoxed, so is the prosecution. “We are looking for Zahira. We have to find her to ensure that she gets the notice,” said Manjula Rao, the prosecution lawyer.
Her past benefactors have no clue, either. Javed Anand from the Citizens for Justice and Peace, which brought the Zahira case to public attention, said the organisation does not know her whereabouts.
Mistry said he was not sure whether Zahira and her family had gone back to their village in Basti in Uttar Pradesh. “But her mother told me that she was thinking of taking Zahira there to get her married.”
The lawyer said he had not yet received a copy of the notice issued to his client. Mistry said previous notices were delivered by Gujarat police to Zahira’s house. This time he expected no exception.
Mistry is said to have arranged accommodation for her in a Hindu locality in Vadodara after she turned her back on activist Teesta Setalvad, accusing her of “torturing and tutoring’’.
Minority leader Zuber Gopalani, who was involved in relief work for post-Godhra riot victims, said: “I do not think any sensible Muslim boy will marry Zahira. She has become untouchable for a Muslim.’’
On March 1, 2002, 14 persons were burned to death at the Vadodara bakery owned by the Sheikh family.
Zahira was the prime witness, but turned hostile, once in the Vadodara court and again in the Mumbai court, where a retrial was held.
The court had on several occasions taken offence at Zahira’s replies during her cross-examination.