Perjury doesn?t pay, finds Zaheera
Taking a serious view of the conflicting statements made before the Supreme Court by Best Bakery case key witness Zaheera Sheikh, the apex court on Wednesday sentenced her to a simple jail term of one year and asked her to pay Rs 50,000 as costs for "contempt of court".
"Zaheera has committed contempt of this court," a bench comprising justices Arijit Pasayat and H.K. Sema said while accepting the report of the court's inquiry officer, which had indicted her as a "self-condemned" liar. If Zaheera failed to pay the costs within two months, she will have to undergo an additional one-year term. The court had on Jan 10, 2005, directed its then registrar general B.M. Gupta to find out the truth regarding Zaheera's flip-flop on the Best Bakery case in which 14 people were burnt alive by a mob during the post-Godhra riots.
"…the criminal justice system is likely to be affected if persons like Zaheera are to be left unpunished," the court noted.
The court directed the Income-Tax authorities in Vadodara to keep her assets, including her bank deposits, under attachment for three months. They will also be required to initiate proceedings requiring her to explain the sources of acquisition of her various assets and the expenses met by her from January 1, 2002, onwards.
The court permitted the I-T authorities, if required, to inquire into allegations made in the Tehelka sting expose that Chandrakant Srivastava and Madhu Srivastava had allegedly bribed Zaheera, and take appropriate action against them if necessary.
In remarks that assume relevance in the wake of the Jessica Lall case, in which the key witness turned hostile, the court stressed on the importance of the judge in dispensing justice to all.
"If a criminal court is to be an effective instrument in dispensing justice, the presiding judge must cease to be a spectator and a mere recording machine by becoming a participant in the trial evincing intelligence, active interest and elicit all relevant materials necessary for reaching the correct conclusion, to find out the truth, and administer justice with fairness and impartiality both to the parties and to the community it serves," the court said. Courts cannot turn a blind eye to vexatious or oppressive conduct that occurred in relating to proceedings, even if a fair trial is possible, it said.
The 50-page judgment also noted that time has come to act to deal with the phenomena of witnesses turning hostile "either due to threats, coercion, lures and monetary considerations, at the instance of those in power, their henchmen and hirelings, political clout and patronage and other corrupt practices…."
The state has a "definitive" role to play in protecting the witnesses, "to start with at least in sensitive cases involving those in power, those who have political patronage and could wield muscle and money power", to "avert trial getting tainted and derailed and truth becoming a casualty", the court said.
Reacting to the development, Zaheera's lawyer D.K. Garg said the order was wrong as the "victim" had been punished. He said he would file a fresh application seeking a reduction in the sentence as Zaheera was a minor when the incident took place. Citizens' for Justice and Peace activist Teesta Setalvad said Zaheera was a "small" link in a "larger conspiracy". The court should probe who the bigger players were, she said. She pointed out that the "language" used in Zaheera's defence in court was not "Zaheera's but that of the Gujarat government".