June 27: Twenty-one people accused of burning Muslims alive in a bakery during the Godhra backlash today walked away free after hostile witnesses forced a trial court to acquit them “for lack of evidence”.
Nearly 70 witnesses in the Best Bakery case — 12 persons were burnt to death in a Vadodara bakery two days after the Godhra carnage — backtracked, forcing the court to rule “there was no legally accepted evidence to prove… the accused... had committed the crime”.
This is the first verdict in a case relating to the riots that flared after the February 27 carnage in which 59 kar sevaks were burnt on the Sabarmati Express.
The backbone of the case, hearings for which began before additional district and sessions judge H.U. Mahida on May 9, broke only eight days later when Zahira Sheikh, the main complainant, turned hostile. She is the daughter of Best Bakery owner Habibullah and the only surviving member of the family.
After Zahira’s turnaround, most of the other witnesses retracted their statements one by one. Some even took a total U-turn, claiming that the accused, far from committing any crime, had saved several Muslims.
One of the main witnesses, Lal Mohammad, went to the extent of saying police were “framing” the accused and “many accused have been seen helping stranded Muslims”. He claimed the police had randomly picked up witnesses and forced them to “toe a certain line by signing on a pre-prepared panchnama”.
Other witnesses, including Imtiaz Pathan, Liyaqat Sheikh and Abdul Sheikh, backed up Mohammad, saying the accused had saved “close to 65 Muslims”.
The police came in for a severe rap, with the judge saying they had again demonstrated their “weakness” in probing a riots case. “Police always tries to arrest those found from the site of communally affected places, while those responsible for it manage to escape because of delay on the part of police in reaching such places.
“Police have implicated wrong persons as witnesses in the case (and) obtained the signature of eyewitnesses on panchnama which, they say, they had neither read nor knew its contents.”
The judge also observed the verdict could rattle people’s faith in the judiciary. “It is understandable that some doubts or suspicion will be raised on the judicial system… it is the duty of the court to see that wrong persons are not convicted….”
The acquittals brought gloom among the minorities, with Muslim organisations and rights groups saying witnesses had changed their versions under duress from the VHP, the Bajrang Dal and the BJP.
“No one can deny that these witnesses were threatened and coerced by the VHP and the BJP. While some may have been bribed, others were definitely threatened. How else do you explain the presence of a BJP MLA during most part of the court proceedings'” a Muslim intellectual in Vadodara asked.
Asked what the reaction in the community was, he replied: “There is a loss of hope and faith. We were hoping that the culprits would be punished. Now, we can only pray that other cases don’t go the same way.”
But Hindu organisations burst into celebration. “There was no crime in the first place, how could there be punishment'” asked Manishbhai, a relative of accused Ravi Chauhan.