New Delhi, Dec. 22: Zahira Sheikh, the key witness in the Best Bakery case, was paid off by associates of Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi to change her testimony in court, the news portal Tehelka claimed today.
It produced secretly filmed footage to buttress its allegation at a news conference today.
The footage with poor audio shows Madhu Srivastava, a BJP legislator, and his cousin and Congress corporator Chandrakant Batthoo Srivastava telling another corporator, Nisar Bapu, that they had paid Zahira Rs 18 lakh.
In the footage, the charge that Zahira was paid off flows from a conversation between Batthoo and Bapu. Speaking partly in Gujarati and partly in Hindi, Batthoo is quoted in the subtitles as saying: 'The whole family (Zahira's) would keep going to Madhu, time and again, time and again. Do this for us, do this, our bakery will get started again, this will happen. Drove us up the wall. Then finally Madhu took the decision that let us give her the money. First, it started from Rs 25 lakh and got stuck at Rs 18 to 20 lakh. Then after collecting cash from everyone, she was given Rs 18 lakh in cash.'
But the 10-minute footage does not show money actually changing hands. Nor was evidence produced that the assets of Zahira and her family had bloated unnaturally since the time she made her first statement as a witness.
Tehelka's editor-in-chief Tarun Tejpal claimed 'we have a lot more footage'.
On March 1, 2002, at the peak of the riots in Gujarat, a mob surrounded and torched Best Bakery in Vadodara. Zahira's uncle Quasar was among 14 people roasted to death.
First, in court Zahira named persons who she alleged were involved in the carnage. She had also said Madhu was threatening her to change her testimony. On May 17, 2003, in the first of her turnarounds, Zahira claimed she was hiding from a mob and therefore did not witness the violence. Her testimony led to 21 accused being acquitted.
Tehelka claimed that Zahira was paid even before she approached Teesta Setalvad, a social activist, for help. Her testimony was crucial to Setalvad, who says she is committed to fighting for riot victims.
Setalvad has now been dubbed a villain by Zahira, who has alleged that she had forced her to name the accused. Present at the news conference, Setalvad said: 'We have approached the Supreme Court for a CBI investigation.'