Mumbai, Feb. 24: A special court retrying the Best Bakery case today sentenced nine rioters to life, in a verdict hailed as the triumph of justice.
Judge Abhay Thipse said those convicted were identified by eyewitnesses and found guilty of being part of a mob that set the Vadodara bakery on fire, burning alive 14 people inside, during the 2002 Gujarat riots.
Zahira Sheikh, a prime witness on whose appeal the retrial was ordered but who later turned hostile, has been served with a perjury notice asking why she should not be charged with furnishing false evidence in court. Four members of her family, which owned the bakery, have been served with similar notices.
He could not award capital punishment because the specific roles played by the accused in the carnage could not be ascertained, the judge added, in a packed courtroom dotted with celebrities. The nine have also been convicted of causing grievous injury to five witnesses.
Teesta Setalvad, an activist who had pushed for the retrial, welcomed the verdict as “satisfying”.
The case was shifted to Maharashtra in a landmark move by the Supreme Court in 2004, after a trial court in Vadodara cleared all 21 accused and Gujarat High Court upheld the acquittals.
Eight of the accused were acquitted today for want of evidence. Non-bailable warrants have been issued against four who are absconding.
Setalvad, who had helped Zahira seek retrial only to be accused by the witness later of tutoring her to implicate innocent people, was cleared.
The prosecution said today’s verdict revealed the difference between the judicial processes in the two trials of the Best Bakery case. Only seven witnesses turned hostile this time, five of them from the Sheikh family, compared to 68 when the case was being tried in Gujarat.
“Our victory was built on the strength of the evidence against the accused,” public prosecutor Manjula Rao said.
Playwright Vijay Tendulkar, who made a rare public appearance, filmmaker Mahesh Bhatt and actor Rahul Bose were present in the courtroom to hear the ruling.
The Supreme Court is expected to give its verdict shortly on a probe that found that Zahira had been paid by a BJP leader from Gujarat, Madhu Srivastava, to retract her statement in court. The apex court is also to rule on a request for reinvestigation in eight other Gujarat riot cases.
The nine sentenced to life were Raju Baria, Pankaj Gisav, Sanjay Tahkkar, Jeetu (Bahadur Singh Chauhan), Jagdish Rajput, Dinesh Rajbhar, Sanabhai Baria, Sailesh Thadvi and Suresh Vasava (Laloo). They are expected to appeal in Gujarat High Court.