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Jessica message in Zahira jail
THE PUNISHMENT
• Simple imprisonment for a year and fine of Rs 50,000. In case of default of fine, another year in prison
• Assets and bankaccounts to be attached for three months
• Probe into source of income from 2000 till date
• Tax authorities can probe sting operation showing two MLAs talking about payment to Zahira

New Delhi, March 8: The Supreme Court today sentenced key Gujarat riots witness Zahira Sheikh to a year in prison for trying to deflect the course of justice.

The verdict also defined the role of states in protecting witnesses at a time when the acquittals in the Jessica Lal murder case have sparked outrage across the country. Witnesses’ somersaults or refusal to testify had led to the collapse of the model’s murder case.

“We find Zahira guilty of contempt of court,” a two-judge bench of Justices Arijit Passayat and H.K. Sema said.

The bench also slapped a fine of Rs 50,000 on Zahira, whose testimony was seen as a test case of attempts to obtain justice for hundreds of Muslim victims of the 2002 violence but whose flip-flops prompted an investigation into her actions. Zahira is now untraceable.

The order came after the Supreme Court accepted the report of a high-powered committee it had set up to probe her changing stand. The inquiry followed a sting operation that indicated money was paid to her for recanting her statements. The probe committee, in its report, said Zahira was a “self-condemned liar”.

Last month, a Mumbai court convicted nine persons accused of burning alive 14 people in Zahira’s family-owned Best Bakery during the riots.

Justice Passayat, who wrote the judgment, said the criminal justice system would be affected if persons like Zahira were left unpunished and added that the case was a classic example” of one where a witness was “won over”.

The bench spoke at length on the role of courts as well as states in dealing with witnesses. “If a criminal court is to be an effective instrument in dispensing justice, the presiding judge must cease to be a' mere recording machine,” the judges said.

“We find that people have started feeling that criminal trials are like cobweb where small flies are getting caught and big people are dashing through,” the judges said.

The judgment said the state has to arrest the growing problem of witnesses turning hostile. “The state has a definite role to play in protecting the witnesses, to start with at least in sensitive cases involving those in power, who have political patronage and could wield muscle and money power,” the judges said.

Zahira’s counsel D.K. Garg said he would seek a review of the order.

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