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Since 1st March, 1999
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Massacre witness in retrial cry
- Zahira says she turned hostile under BJP leader’s pressure

Mumbai, July 7: Zahira Sheikh, who retracted her initial statement in court and turned the Best Bakery massacre case upside down, has announced that she will appeal for a retrial, though not in Gujarat.

“I don’t trust anything, anybody there, and I am too scared to go there now. Our lives are in danger,” Zahira said here today, flanked by ad guru Alyque Padamsee and lyricist Javed Akhtar.

On March 1 last year, 12 Muslims and two Hindus were burnt to death at the Vadodara bakery her father owned. The massacre — two days after the torching of the Sabarmati Express in Godhra, the flashpoint of the riots — forced the 19-year-old to go into hiding along with the surviving members of her family.

Today, Zahira broke her silence on the political pressure put on her to turn hostile in court. She publicly blamed Madhu Srivastava, the BJP MLA from Hanuman Tekri in Vadodara, for threatening her.

“Madhu Srivastava asked me to lie in court,” she said. “There were threats all the time, those who called repeatedly told us that my mother, too, would be killed if I didn’t go back on my statement to the police. I didn’t want any more of my people to die. There was no way I could have told the truth in court.”

The bakery case, the first of many concerning mostly Muslim victims of the Gujarat riots, fell on its face after a fast track court in Vadodara recently ruled in favour of the 21 accused. The court, in a very defensive statement, had said there was no evidence to call for action against the accused.

The acquittal came after Zahira — the main witness — refused to identify the 21 accused. Of the 73 witnesses, 39 had turned hostile following Zahira. Instead of the accused, the witnesses blamed police for lodging “false cases against those who saved the lives of many Muslims”.

But Zahira, whose case will now also be fought by the Citizens for Justice and Peace, an NGO formed after the Gujarat riots, contradicted her statement all over again. “The 21 accused are the same ones who had killed all those people in the bakery,” she said.

Asked if the police, as alleged by many witnesses, had picked up the wrong persons, she said: “No, they are the ones. If the case comes for retrial, I will identify each one of them.”

More than anything, it was humanity that Zahira seemed to have lost faith in. “Even my own people (Muslims) didn’t stand up for us, we were completely alone,” she said. “There were threats from everywhere but when we approached Muslim lawyers to fight for us, they asked for Rs 4 lakh.” She added that she had to rely on a government prosecutor who asked her just one question at the fag end of the trial: “Do you want to recognise any of the accused in court'”

Zahira and her mother’s arrival in Mumbai — they will not be available to the media from now on — has put paid to the National Human Rights Commission’s attempts to seek a fresh deposition from them tomorrow. A team from the rights panel is already in Ahmedabad.

“I will send a statement from here,” Zahira said. “Anyway, nothing happened earlier when the commission took our statements.”

The Best Bakery case has become a rallying point for some of Mumbai’s most well-known personalities. “We are here to extend our support and help in the family’s rehabilitation,” Padamsee said. “We cannot keep quiet any longer. What will happen if those who have promised to protect turn persecutors. We have to get more people to voice our dissent against what is happening.”

Maintaining that the entire edifice of democracy will crumble if no one can provide justice, Akhtar said: “It is obvious that there have been no serious attempts at meting out justice to those who suffered in the riots. It is time we stood up to get counted.”

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