Hostile witnesses hurt prosecution in Mecca Masjid blast case
Out of 226 witnesses who deposed in the case, 66 turned hostile and didn’t support the prosecution in the Mecca Masjid blast trials. A special NIA court on Monday acquitted five suspects, including Aseemanand, in the case.Updated: Apr 17, 2018 10:15 IST
As many as 66 of 226 witnesses turned hostile after deposing in court in the Mecca Masjid blast trials, delivering a crippling blow to the prosecution in the 11-year-old case that saw a special anti-terrorism court acquit five suspects on Monday in the absence of evidence.
According to an official associated with the prosecution, there were 304 witnesses in the case but 78 of them were dropped as they were formal witnesses and their deposition didn’t have a bearing on the judgment.
“Out of 226 witnesses who deposed in the case, 66 turned hostile and didn’t support the prosecution. We will have to see the copy of the judgment to find out how it weakened National Investigation Agency’s (NIA) case. But 66 is big number, bound to affect the prosecution’s case,” said the official.
Those acquitted on Monday includes Swami Aseemanand, a Hindu leader who had earlier confessed his role in the bombing that ripped through the four-century-old mosque during Friday prayers on May 18, 2007, killing nine people. He retracted his statement later, saying he did so under duress.
Trials in most cases related to alleged terrorist activities by Hindu groups had weakened because witnesses turned hostile.
As many as 26 of 149 witnesses turned hostile in the trial after the Ajmer Sharif bombing in which three people were killed when a bomb went off during iftaar on October 11, 2007.
The NIA could secure conviction of only three accused — Devendra Gupta, Bhavesh Patel and Sunil Joshi, who died before the trial — because almost all witnesses who recorded their statements before a magistrate under Section 164 of the Criminal Procedure Code (CrPC), turned hostile, investigators said. Seven suspects, including Aseemanand, were acquitted in the Ajmer case.
Recording statements before a magistrate gave the witnesses higher judicial sanctity in comparison to a statement recorded by a police officer. This was followed in the Mecca Masjid blast too. But the NIA found that at least three witnesses in the September 2008 Malegaon blast turned hostile despite giving their statements before a magistrate under Section 164 of the CrPc. Almost all witnesses told the NIA that police forced them to give their statements.
That led the agency to drop charges against Sadhvi Pragya Singh Thakur, a key accused in the case.
The trial in the Samjhauta Express train blasts, another case linked to alleged Hindu terrorism, weakened because witnesses retracted statements. The blasts in the Delhi-Lahore train in February 2007 killed 68 people, mostly Pakistanis. “In all, NIA cited 299 witnesses in the Samjhauta case. Of them, 209 deposed and 42 turned hostile so far,” said the prosecution official.
Experts suggested a witness protection regime to stop them from changing their statements. “If a trial drags on for years, the chances of witnesses turning hostile grow. Besides, we need to have a witness protection legislative framework,” says NR Wasan, a former Bureau of Police Research and Development chief.
- WHAT HAPPENED: Four blasts outside a mosque in Malegaon, a town in Maharashtra’s Nashik district, killed 38 people on September 8, 2006.
- PROBE: The Maharashtra anti-terrorism squad (ATS) and the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) chargesheeted nine Muslims. The NIA took over the case in 2011 and filed a charge sheet against alleged Hindu extremists in the case paving the way for the release of the Muslims accused on bail.
- STATUS: Trial yet to begin.
- WHAT HAPPENED: A blast on October 11, 2007 during Ramzan at the Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti Dargah in Rajasthan’s Ajmer killed three people and left around a dozen injured. Three more bombs were later recovered from the premises.
- PROBE: Of the 13 accused, three are absconding and another – Sunil Joshi — is dead. The trial against nine accused ended up in the conviction of only three — Sunil Joshi, Devendra Gupta and Bhavesh Patel.
- STATUS: Seven accused, including Aseemanand, were acquitted. Gupta and Patel sentenced to life imprisonment.
- WHAT HAPPENED: Improvised explosive devices (IEDs) kept in Samjhauta Express exploded near Dewana railway station in Haryana’s Panipat district on February 18, 2007. The explosion killed 68 people, mostly Pakistanis going back to Lahore from Delhi.
- PROBE: The NIA has filed charges against Hindu extremists in the case.
- STATUS: The trial is on.
- WHAT HAPPENED: Joshi was shot dead on December 29, 2007 while walking back to his hideout at Chuna Khadan locality in Dewas, Madhya Pradesh. He was the leader of a group allegedly consisting of Pragya Singh Thakur, Lokesh Sharma, Sandeep Dange, Ramji Kalsangra, Rajendra Pehelwan, Dhan Singh, Amit Chauhan and Aseemanand.
- PROBE: After completing the probe, the NIA handed over the case to the MP police saying it did not find evidence to suggest his murder was linked to an extremist conspiracy.
- STATUS: Trial ended on February 1, 2017, and all the eight accused, including Pragya Singh Thakur, were acquitted.
- WHAT HAPPENED: Twin blasts in Maharashtra’s Malegaon and Gujarat’s Modasa took place on September 29, 2008 during Ramzan and a day ahead of Hindu festival of Shivratri. IEDs mounted on motorcycles were planted at both locations, killing eight people.
- PROBE: Maharashtra Police’s ATS said it had cracked the Malegaon case and Pragya Singh Thakur and a serving Indian Army official Prasad Srikant Purohit were arrested.
- STATUS: The NIA later dropped charges against Thakur and the special court is yet to take a call on it. The Modasa blast case was closed by NIA citing lack of evidence.