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Gujarat gets rap for riots

New Delhi, March 8: The Supreme Court today said states should not deviate from their constitutional obligation to protect citizens because of extraneous factors like “caste, creed, religion, political belief or ideology”.

“We can only say this with regard to the criticism levelled against the state of Gujarat,” a bench of Justices Arijit Passayat and H.K. Sema said, sentencing Best Bakery case witness Zahira Sheikh to a year in jail for retracting her statement against the accused.

Although today’s judgment made only an oblique reference to the role of the Gujarat government, the court had earlier compared the state machinery with Roman king Nero for its failure to control the 2002 post-Godhra riots in which hundreds of Muslims were killed.

The role played by courts, witnesses, public prosecutors and investigating officers has to be more focused, the court said, after accepting an inquiry report that said Zahira was induced with money to change her statement.

The inquiry conducted on the court’s directive had made unfavourable remarks against 11 persons, including Gujarat BJP MLA Madhu Srivastava, former Vadodara collector Bhagyesh Jha and police commissioner Sudhir Sinha.

The court directed the income-tax department to probe alleged payment of money to Zahira by Srivastava.

On the role of law-enforcing agencies, the court said it was inherent in the concept of “due process of law” that one should be condemned only after a hearing that was “a real one, not sham or a mere farce and pretence”.

It noted that states could play a major role in checking witnesses from turning hostile and in “protecting witnesses”, particularly in sensitive cases involving those in power and having political patronage, muscle power and money.

The states have a duty to protect witnesses so that the “ultimate truth is presented before the court and justice triumphs, and that the trial is not reduced to a mockery”.

The court also advised judges against turning a blind eye to vexatious or oppressive conduct related to trial proceedings.

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