PUCL, June 2003

Indian rights groups to appeal against Gujarat verdict

-- By Kalyani,OneWorld South Asia, Wed Jul 2, 7:26 AM ET


NEW DELHI, July 2 (OneWorld) - Indian human rights groups plan to move court against the recent acquittal of 21 persons accused of a gruesome anti-Muslim hate crime in the west Indian state of Gujarat last year.

Leading Indian activists said Tuesday they were soon going to file an appeal against the June 27 judgment by a Gujarat court. This was the first verdict on a case relating to three months of anti-Muslim violence which killed at least 2000 people in the state.

According to the prosecution, the accused had burnt 14 Muslims to death in a bakery in the city of Vadodara in Gujarat on March 1, 2002. The court absolved them on the grounds of insufficient evidence.

"Morally, this was a huge set-back to us," says Teesta Setalvad, the editor of Communalism Combat, a Mumbai-based group working against religious bigotry. "The acquittal reflects terribly on the Indian judiciary," she remarks.

The case has been in the news ever since a key witness, Zaheera Shaikh, turned hostile in court last month. Shaikh, a sister of one of those burnt alive and one of the complainants, retracted her original statement stating she had witnessed the violence in the bakery.

"We are worried and concerned about the case," says rights activist Rajinder Sachar, one of the founders of the People's Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL), a leading Indian rights body. "The state should have provided security to the girl who must have been terrified," he says.

Sachar says the PUCL intends to file an appeal in the Gujarat High Court shortly. "We have a month to do so, and are examining all the aspects of the case," he says. Setalvad adds that local groups in Gujarat are examining Shaikh's testimony to independent organizations such as the federal human rights body -- the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), and a citizens' tribunal that examined the Gujarat violence that began on March 1.

The NHRC has also taken up the issue. On Monday, it gave the state government one week to submit a report on the steps it plans to take against the acquittal.

"But we are not going to wait for the state government to take action," declares Sachar. "We are moving on our own," he says.

Though human rights activists say they are appalled by the verdict, it did not come as a complete surprise to them as 41 of the 73 witnesses who deposed before the judge had turned hostile, claiming they had not seen the violence at the Best Bakery.

The activists argue that witnesses such as Shaikh were forced to change their position under political pressure. Setalvad points out that on the last two occasions, Shaikh was accompanied to the court by a senior member of the ruling Hindu-dominated Bharatiya Janata Party - which civil rights groups say did little to control the prolonged anti-Muslim violence.

"It is the duty of the state to assure the witnesses or the victims that they have nothing to fear," points out senior Supreme Court lawyer Rajeev Dhavan. "But in this case, precautionary measures were thrown to the winds."

The activists continue to urge the government to transfer the state-conducted probe to India's apex investigating agency -- the Central Bureau of Investigation. Sachar stresses that the cases against the rioters should be tried "outside" Gujarat, a demand echoed by the New York-based global human rights body, Human Rights Watch (HRW).

Accusing the state government of "sabotaging" the investigations, in a July report released Monday, HRW has urged the federal government to take over the cases of the large-scale massacres.

In the report titled "Compounding Injustice: The Government's Failure to Redress Massacres in Gujarat," HRW emphasizes the absence of even a single conviction in the 16 months after the violence. "The government's record on the massacres is appalling," says Smita Narula, the author of the report and a senior researcher for HRW.

The violence at the Best Bakery was one among many such barbaric incidents in Gujarat which was hit by anti-Muslim riots following the February 27 torching by a Muslim mob of a train compartment in the central Gujarat town of Godhra.



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