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Worst nightmare in Best case - Key witness Zahira recants, accuses Teesta of tutoring her to lie

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BASANT RAWAT AND CHANDRIMA S. BHATTACHARYA   |     |   Published 04.11.04, 12:00 AM

Nov. 3: A test-case initiative to bring to book the perpetrators of the Gujarat riots has been thrown into disarray with Zahira Sheikh, the key witness in the Best Bakery case, levelling stunning charges against her mentor and human rights activist Teesta Setalvad.

Zahira said in an intriguing affidavit in Vadodara today that Setalvad had pressured and ?tutored? her to implicate innocent people and had kept her captive at the activist?s home.

The disclosures of the 20-year-old girl, whose father and other relatives were among the 14 slaughtered in the bakery during the post-Godhra riots, had prompted the Supreme Court earlier this year to order an unparalleled retrial and transfer the case to Maharashtra.

Zahira had initially implicated the accused men but backtracked during the trial in a Vadodara court, leading to the acquittal of all the accused. With Setalvad and the National Human Rights Commission playing an instrumental role, the case reached the Supreme Court, where Zahira said she had been intimidated into changing her testimony in the Vadodara court because of threats to her life.

Zahira recanted again today. ?Whatever I said in the Vadodara court was true and whatever I said after it was under pressure from Teesta. She kept me locked in her house,? she said in the affidavit filed before the district collector.

Setalvad said she was shocked by Zahira?s accusations. ?The timing of her statement is very strange. It was made only under pressure. I am shocked, pained, but not defeated. She was the star witness. I can?t deny that. But this will only damage her own credibility, not of the case,? she said in Mumbai.

Zahira?s turnaround comes at a time the retrial is in progress in a Mumbai special court. She was supposed to appear before the court tomorrow. Lawyers said if Zahira eventually deposes and repeats today?s statement, it could again lead to acquittal of the accused.

Till last evening, Zahira was in Mumbai. Today, she surfaced in a three-star hotel in Vadodara to hold a media conference, fuelling speculation that other figures are behind the sudden somersault.

Zahira, who had earlier said she lied in the Vadodara court after being threatened by local BJP MLA Madhu Srivastava and his cousin Chantrakant, said today she does not know the Srivastava brothers. The MLA used to put forward the same disclaimer when he was asked questions about her.

In the affidavit, Zahira has named four members of Setalvad?s non-government organisation, Citizens for Justice and Peace, for keeping her, along with her mother, sister and brother, in captivity.

?We were not allowed to meet anyone. Our movement was restricted. We were constantly under threat.? she said, adding that Setalvad had made her sign several documents in English.

Vadodara police commissioner Sudhir Sinha said Zahira had been provided security cover after she sought protection from Setalvad who, she alleged, had threatened her with dire consequences if she did not cooperate.

The commissioner said action could be initiated against Setalvad for ?wrongful confinement? if an FIR is filed.

Reacting to Zahira?s plea for protection, Setalvad said: ?She was staying with her relative in Mira Road-Bhayandar since December. How can I pose a threat to her??

However, the relative, Ghulam Patel, said Zahira was not staying with him, though her mother and brother were, but they left on Monday.

Public prosecutor Manjula Rao claimed that Zahira?s mother had approached her for money for a house and a bakery.

?Zahira and her family were supposed to have started deposing before the court tomorrow. I will send a summons to her. If she doesn?t come, I will prosecute her for filing a false statement,? Rao said.


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