The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Zahira reveals threat & fear in petition

New Delhi, Aug. 8: Zahira Habibullah Sheikh, the main witness in the Best Bakery case, today told the Supreme Court her tale in her petition seeking a retrial.

Putting on legal record the name of BJP MLA Madhu Srivastava, she alleged that “crucial evidence was shut out through threats and intimidation”.

Zahira’s petition said Srivastava was present in the trial court when she went to depose before it. His presence made her feel the “threat and fear”. Srivastava, she said, ordered her brother Nafitullah to take her away as reporters from two English-language national dailies approached her.

Blaming Srivastava of intimidating the press also, Zahira said the BJP MLA “forced the press reporters to leave the room”. “This was how petitioner No. 3 (Zahira) identified the menacing-looking man as Madhu Srivastava,” her petition said.

According to Zahira, the police, too, threatened to change her version of the approximate number of people in the “crowd” that had attacked and burnt Best Bakery. She alleged the police changed the number to 1,200 from 200.

Zahira filed the petition jointly with the Citizens for Justice and Peace, an NGO headed by social activist Teesta Setalvad.

Citing “gross miscarriage of justice”, both petitioners sought retrial in the bakery case outside Gujarat and the setting aside of the trial court’s June 27 verdict acquitting all 21 accused.

Aparna Bhatt, Zahira’s counsel, drew a parallel with the National Human Rights Commission’s petitions seeking similar retrial. The apex court bench, presided over by Chief Justice of India V.. Khare, said Zahira’s petition would be taken up “in due course”.

Zahira contended in the petition that “threats, intimidation and hostile environment in the courtroom itself” had made 37 of the 41 bakery-case witnesses to turn hostile like her and not identify the perpetrators of the crime.

She also accused the public prosecutor of “failing to carry out” his legal duties in ensuring proper atmosphere for the witnesses during trial. “A retrial is absolutely essential since fresh evidence is likely to throw new light on the case,” she pleaded.

Zahira listed 15 people in her petition as the perpetrators and said she could “clearly” see these people as part of the attacking mob as the streetlights were on that fateful night.

The petition went on to say that the public prosecutor did not ask a single question why the witnesses contradicted their earlier statements and did not brief them either.

The trial judge, too, did not pose a single question to the witnesses to ascertain why they had turned hostile, Zahira’s petition said.

It blamed both the public prosecutor and the trial judge for failing to carry out their legal duties.

Gujarat unfazed

The Gujarat law minister today claimed that the Supreme Court’s move on the rights panel’s retrial plea vindicated the state’s stand.

Ashok Bhatt said the apex court had only asked the state government for details of the appeal filed in the high court against the Best Bakery acquittal. He was reacting to the apex court notice issued to the Gujarat government seeking to know why the NHRC’s plea for retrial outside the state shouldn’t be allowed.

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