Hindus cleared over riot deaths

PUBLISHED : Monday, 30 June, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 30 June, 2003, 12:00am

A court in Baroda, India, has acquitted all Hindus charged with burning alive 12 Muslims in a bakery, citing lack of evidence.

It was the first verdict in a case relating to the Gujarat riots which shocked India last year.

Branding Friday's judgment a gross injustice, outraged human rights activists and opposition parties have accused Gujarat's ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders and the police of terrorising witnesses and survivors into retracting their statements which led to the acquittals.

Sitaram Yechury, a senior Communist Party leader, said: 'It's a rigged verdict. Witnesses were intimidated into disowning their statements so that the killers could walk free.'

Mr Yechury has urged the Supreme Court to intervene and order a retrial outside Gujarat.

On March 1, 2002, in one of the worst massacres during the religious violence in Gujarat, 12 Muslims hiding in Best Bakery, Baroda, 100km from Ahmedabad, were burnt alive when a Hindu mob set it on fire killing everyone inside, including bakery owner Habibullah Sheikh.

Sheikh's daughter, Zaheera Bibi - who had a miraculous escape - was the prime witness. She retracted her statement given to the police during investigations and refused to identify alleged killers and rioters during the trial.

As many as 36 out of 70 prosecution witnesses turned hostile in court, leading to the acquittal of all the 21 accused.

Judge Hemantsinh U. Mahida ruled that he was honourably acquitting the 21 Hindu accused as there was no material evidence or testimonies to sentence them.

During the trial, several newspapers reported that Zaheera Bibi was escorted in and out of court by local BJP legislator Madhu Srivastav, whose followers were accused of perpetrating the bakery massacre.

According to Deal Trevedie, Gujarat correspondent of Asian Age newspaper, it was clear at every step during the trial that the police, defence and prosecution lawyers were hand in glove and openly sympathetic to the accused.

Nearly 2,000 Muslims were killed in what has been described as state-sponsored violence after a Muslim mob torched a train compartment at Godhra on February 27 last year, killing 58 Hindus.

Investigations into the post-Godhra riots by India's high-powered National Human Rights Commission exposed the role of the BJP state government, particularly the police, in the systematic killing of Muslims, rape of Muslim women and destruction of Muslim-owned properties and businesses across Gujarat.

A report by a team of British diplomats backed those findings.