The Bombay high court has acquitted five accused and upheld life imprisonment for four in the Best Bakery case, while observing that there were serious lapses in police investigations.
The Best Bakery incident was the first Gujarat riot-related case to be moved out of the state to a special court in Mumbai, following the Supreme Court’s order to ensure a fair trial.
In the aftermath of the riots triggered by the burning of the Sabarmati Express in Godhra on February 27, 2002, 14 members of a family were killed in a mob attack on the bakery in Vadodara on March 1.
Delivering the operative part of the judgment on Monday, a division bench of Justice VM Kanade and Justice PD Kode said the reasoned order will be delivered in a day or two.
The court has upheld the life sentences awarded to Sanjay Thakkar, Bahadursingh Chauhan, Sanabhai Baria and Dinesh Rajbhar after taking into consideration the statements given by four of the eye witnesses.
But reversing the trial court order, the high court acquitted Rajubhai Baria, Pankaj Gosavi, Jagdish Rajput, Suresh alias Lalo Devjibhai Vasava and Shailesh Tadvi, observing that there was no evidence or witness statement confirming the roles allegedly played by these accused.
The judgment came four months after the court started hearing the appeals of the nine convicts. It started dictating the judgment last week.
The trial court earlier acquitted eight others accused in the case and issued perjury notices to key witness Zaheera Sheikh and other witnesses for back-tracking from their testimonies. In 2006, Shaikh, her mother Sehrunisa and sister Saherabano were convicted for perjury.
In a related case, one of the witnesses, Yasmeen Sheikh, filed a petition in the high court stating that she was “lured and misguided” into giving false testimony against the 21 accused by social activist Teesta Setalvad. She sought her evidence to be recorded again at the stage of appeal.
The court, however, said it would first hear and decide on the appeals filed by the convicts.
Activist Teesta Setalvad, too, filed an intervening application seeking a hearing on this issue. The court will pronounce its order on the applications filed by Sheikh and Setalvad later.
Best Bakery Trial
The Best Bakery case in Vadodara, in which 14 people were burnt alive, was one of the two cases related to the 2002 riots, which were re-probed and the trial shifted outside Gujarat after the intervention of the Supreme Court. The other was the Bilkis Bano rape and murder case.
Among the most gruesome massacres of the Gujarat riots, the Best Bakery case has often come to symbolise the brutality of the carnage during the post-Godhara riots, in which around 1,200 people were killed.
A day after the bakery was burnt down by a mob on March 1, 2002, the owner’s 18-year-old daughter Zaheera Sheikh lodged a police complaint against 21 accused.
In June 2003, a fast track court acquitted all accused citing lack of evidence as key witnesses, including Sheikh, turned hostile. The trial court blamed the police for a delay in filing the FIR, and shoddy probe, which led to the acquittal of the accused.
After the Gujarat HC upheld the verdict in December, the apex court termed the acquittal “miscarriage of justice”. It then ordered re-investigation and re-trial and moved the case to Maharashtra.
Indicting the Narendra Modi government on riots, the SC bench had observed: “When ghastly killings take place in the land of Mahatma Gandhi, it raises a very pertinent question as to whether some people have become so bankrupt in their ideology that they have deviated from everything which was so dear to him (Gandhi).”
After reinvestigation, the trial court in Mumbai convicted nine of the 21 accused and sentenced them to life. Eight others were acquitted while the remaining four are yet to be arrested.
In a rare instance, the SC had sentenced prime witness Zahira Sheikh to one year in prison for perjury.
The prosecutors, Manjula Rao and Jayesh Yagnik, argued that the accused had gone up to the first floor of the building and witnesses have identified and given accounts of their specific roles during the attack.
The defence team, led by senior counsel Adhik Shirodkar, contended that the accused had been framed as the bakery was allegedly torched by a mob and had been burning for over 12 hours. Shirodkar said that the structure was on fire and the accused could not have entered it.
Shirodkar also argued there was a curfew throughout Vadodara and armed police vans were patrolling the entire area.
Therefore, it was humanly impossible that not a single police van could come to the bakery the entire night up to the morning, he contended.
The appeal also stated that there was only one lamp-post in the area, and it was not working, which raised a question mark about how people coming out of the building could have been identified by the witnesses.
High Court’s Stinging Observations
While criticising the investigating agency for lapses in the investigation, the judges observed that even though there are certain contradictions and lapses in the statements of the witnesses who were workers at the bakery, they should be discarded keeping in mind that these four witnesses—Taufil Siddique, Rais Khan, Shehazad Khan and Shailun Pathan—have survived through the skin of their teeth and escaped from the clutches of death.
The court went on to observe that normally such witnesses would not falsely implicate the accused. If they wanted to do so, they would have implicated all the accused, the court observed.
The court observed that there was a lapse and it was the duty of the police to ensure witness statements were recorded properly.
Witnesses cannot be held responsible for omissions and contradictions in their statements, the court held.
The judges said that after SC remanded the case for retrial, police ought to have re-investigated the matter. Stating that the investigating officer showed supreme over-confidence, the court said it is possible that whoever was in charge of the investigation was confident Zaheera and other witnesses would not turn hostile.
The judges said police should have kept a watch over witnesses in the hospital so that additional statements could have been recorded after discharge.
March 1, 2002: 14 persons are killed as Best Bakery in Vadodara is burnt down by a mob.
March 2, 2002: Main complainant Zaheera Sheikh files first information report naming the accused.
March 21, 2002: Zaheera moves before NHRC
May 7, 2003: Zaheera’s brother Nafitullah and sister Saira retract statements in fast-track court in Vadodara
May 17, 2003: Zaheera turns hostile in court, saying she cannot identity the accused. Zaheera’s mother Sherunissa and brother Naseebullah deny their statements to police
June 27, 2003: Additional sessions judge HU Mahida of the Vadodara court acquits all 21 accused in the case who were named by Zaheera in her statements to police, NHRC
July 7, 2003: Zaheera says BJP legislator Madhu Srivastava intimidated her into turning hostile. Demands a re-trial outside Gujarat.
July 11, 2003: Zaheera gives a statement before the NHRC in the presence of Teesta Setalvad, secretary of Citizens for Justice and Peace, about how she was forced to retract her statements in the court.
August 7, 2003: The Gujarat govt challenges the court’s verdict acquitting the accused by filing an appeal in Guj HC
December 26, 2003: The Guj HC dismisses the appeal filed by the government
March 12, 2004: The SC admits Gujarat government’s appeal against the acquittal.
April 12, 2004: The SC orders retrial of the Best Bakery case outside Gujarat and the trial is shifted to Mumbai.
September 22, 2004: Charges framed against 17 accused in Mumbai court by judge Abhay Thipsay. Four other accused were declared absconding.
October 4, 2004: Trial begins in the special court in Mumbai.
November 3, 2004: Another turnaround by Zaheera, saying that her statement given in the fast track court at Vadodara was correct.
February 24, 2006: Special court at Mumbai convicts nine persons for attacking Best Bakery in the Hanuman Tekri area of Vadodara and killing 14 people.
July 9, 2012: Bombay high court acquits 5 in the case, life term for 4 upheld.