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The Best Bakery Saga

It is important to note the parallels between this case and the court cases resulting from the 1984 Sikh massacres in Delhi. In each case the accused used their positions of political power to pressure the powerless accuser(s) into backing down. On December 22, Mid-Day reported, "In yet another twist to the Best Bakery case, a sting operation carried out by Tehelka captured controversial B.J.P. M.L.A. Madhu Srivastava purportedly saying that key witness Zahira Sheikh was paid Rs. 18 lakh [1 lakh = 100,000] to turn hostile in the case in which all the 21 accused were acquitted by a fast-track court in Gujarat in July last year. . . . In the tape . . . Srivastava's cousin and Congress councillor Chandrakant Batthoo Srivastava was shown saying that the Gujarat government had '100 per cent' given her money to turn hostile for the second time - during the ongoing retrial in Mumbai."

B.B.C. News, Nov. 3, 2004

Photo: Zahira Sheikh

The most high profile trial following the Hindu-Muslim riots in the Indian state of Gujarat two years ago has again been thrown into confusion.

A key witness in what is known as the Best Bakery trial says human rights workers threatened her into making false statements to the Supreme Court.

The case centres on accusations that a Hindu mob killed 12 Muslims when they set a bakery on fire.

After the original trial, the witness, Zahira Sheikh, admitted lying in court.

More than 1,000 people, mainly Muslims, were killed during the Gujarat riots.

The Best Bakery trial has been mired in controversy since its outset.

In the original trial, Zahira Sheikh was one of several Muslim witnesses who were expected to testify against 21 Hindus accused of attacking the bakery.

But in court they all retracted earlier statements to the police, saying they did not recognise the accused.

The case collapsed and the 21 men walked free.

But she later appeared in Mumbai, in the neighbouring state of Maharashtra.

There she said she had lied in court because she had been threatened with her life by leading members of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party [B.J.P.] in Gujarat if she testified against the 21 Hindu accused.

India's Supreme Court then reviewed the case and ordered a retrial in Mumbai after heavily chastising the judicial authorities in Gujarat for their handling of cases arising out of the riots.

Now the retrial has been thrown into confusion as Zahira Sheikh has for a second time said she has come under intimidation.

This time she has pointed the finger at the human rights group Citizens for Justice and Peace which has been giving her legal assistance.

Ms. Sheikh, now back in her home town of Baroda in Gujarat, said on Wednesday that she had lied to the Supreme Court.

She had done so, she said, because she had been threatened by the head of Citizens for Justice and Peace, Teesta Setalvad.

The group has angrily denied the charge.

Ms. Sheikh alleged she had been forced to sign statements written in English, a language that she did not understand.

She also asked for police protection, saying she faced a threat to her life.

The B.B.C.'s Zubair Ahmed in Mumbai says it is not clear why she has suddenly gone back on her statements submitted to the court.

She was due to make her first appearance in the retrial in the coming days.

The Best Bakery case has often been cited by human rights groups as evidence that victims of the Gujarat riots had gained little justice.

Some of Zahira Sheikh's family owned and ran the bakery, and were among those killed.

The 2002 riots deeply divided Hindus and Muslims living in Gujarat and left a deep scar on the Muslim minority, many of whom still say they live in fear.