Tussle over prosecutor in Best Bakery retrial

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By OUR BUREAU in Ahemdabad
  • Published 7.06.04

Mumbai/ Ahmedabad, June 7: The Best Bakery retrial today got mired in controversy on the very first day with Gujarat unilaterally appointing a public prosecutor without consulting the Maharashtra government.

Vadodara-based advocate Atul Mehta was this evening named the public prosecutor for the cases, transferred out of Gujarat by the apex court after all 21 accused of burning alive 14 people in front of the Best Bakery during the 2002 riots were let off scotfree.

Finding that the states had not appointed a public prosecutor till this morning or agreed on one, the Mumbai court ordered that they sort out the matter between themselves and postponed hearings till June 21.

“There cannot be two prosecutors in the case,” Judge Abhay Thipsay said before adjourning the hearing. The states were asked to settle their dispute in light of the Supreme Court directive that the opinion of witnesses also be taken into account.

Mihir Desai, counsel for key witness Zaheera Sheikh, made a strong appeal in the court that Maharashtra be allowed to appoint the public prosecutor and that victims be sounded before taking the decision.

As a confrontation loomed, Gujarat this evening went ahead and named a public prosecutor. “It has been decided that advocate Atul Mehta will be the public prosecutor for the Best Bakery case while advocate T.S. Nanavati will assist and also conduct the case on his behalf when needed,” state law secretary Bela Trivedi told agencies over phone from Ahmedabad.

Legal sources said the Supreme Court order to appoint a public prosecutor at the earliest had been interpreted in different ways by the two states.

The Maharashtra government claimed it was already in the process of appointing a public prosecutor. Chief public prosecutor Rohini Salian asked the court for time, saying it had already set the process in motion.

Nanavati, who appeared on behalf of the Gujarat government, said the appointment should, by all accounts, be made by Gujarat as the case was still classified as “State of Gujarat versus the accused”.

“Only the platform to hear the case has changed and nothing else,” Nanavati said.

As the battle raged inside the courts, the Congress-led Democratic Front coalition went about trying to put Narendra Modi’s government on the mat. On Friday, it announced it would provide free accommodation and security to all witnesses in the case. State police declared they would not ask Gujarat to reimburse the cost of security provided to witnesses.

Hinting at a virtual proxy fight between the two states, Maharashtra home minister R.R. Patil said his government “is very happy that the Supreme Court has showed trust in the law and order situation here and transferred the trial to Maharashtra.’’

In the court today, four of the accused — who had asked for free legal aid and were granted it — were present. Two more were arrested by the Gujarat government in the last 24 hours. Fifteen are still absconding.

The Supreme Court had ordered the retrial and transfer of the Best Bakery cases after witnesses, chiefly Zaheera, complained they were being threatened in Gujarat. The 21 accused in the carnage were acquitted by a fast-track court in Vadodara after all the witnesses turned hostile.