VADODARA, India (UCAN) — Catholic Church people and human-rights activists are hailing as a triumph of justice the conviction of nine people in a case related to sectarian riots in western India.
On Feb. 24, a special court sentenced nine men to life imprisonment for torching the Best Bakery, killing 14 people inside it. Twelve of those killed had taken refuge there during anti-Muslim riots in Gujarat in 2002. The other two fatalities were Hindu employees of the bakery.
The riots, which continued for a few months, killed more than 1,000 people, mostly Muslims. Media and human-rights activists had accused the state government of tacitly supporting the rioters. The pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP, Indian people’s party) rules the state.
In June 2003 a court acquitted all the accused in the case, and the Gujarat High Court later confirmed the acquittal. Nationwide protests followed, and on April 12, 2004, India’s Supreme Court ordered a retrial outside Gujarat.
"We have waited four long years for these convictions," said Father Cedric Prakash, calling the judgment "a triumph of truth. The Jesuit priest runs Prashant (tranquility), a human-rights center in Ahmedabad, the Gujarat capital, 915 kilometers southwest of New Delhi. In his view the latest verdict is the first step toward reconciliation and communal harmony in the state.
Father Prakash was among those who had demanded a new trial in the case after the 2003 acquittal. That verdict came after witnesses retracted their earlier testimony.
The Best Bakery case was one of 2,000 cases awaiting a special court hearing. The prime witness in the case, Zahira Shaikh, daughter of the bakery owner, retracted her testimony in court. She later told media that she changed her testimony because of pressure from right-wing Hindu groups. With the help of human-rights groups she then asked the Supreme Court to reopen the case.
Following her petition, the Supreme Court quashed the acquittal and ordered a retrial in a court outside Gujarat. The proceedings were moved to a court in Mumbai, capital of neighboring Maharashtra state, 1,410 kilometers southwest of New Delhi.
There, however, Shaikh once again retreated from her early statements. Media quoted Shaikh’s relatives as saying she had accepted money from a right-wing Hindu politician to weaken the case. Shaikh also told the court that rights activists forced her to petition the court.
But the special court proceeded with additional witnesses who had not been summoned for deposition earlier. The latest verdict was made on the basis of the same investigation report that led to the earlier acquittal.
The new verdict also asked Shaikh, her mother, sister and two brothers to explain why they should not be prosecuted for perjury.
Some riot victims told UCA News that the verdict gives them hope the other pending riot-related cases also would have fair trials. "Now we are hopeful that there is justice for us," said Zubair Gopalani of Vadodara, where the bakery was situated, 1,030 kilometers southwest of New Delhi.
Riot victim Rehnuriza Shaikh welcomed the verdict, saying she had "lost everything" in the riot. "Our dear ones were killed without even knowing what they were being killed for," Shaikh said in a trembling voice. Rioters killed her husband and father-in-law, leaving no adult male in her family. She now works as a domestic helper to support the surviving members of the family.
Also hailing the verdict, Bishop Godfrey Rozario of Baroda (old name of Vadodara) said: "I am sure justice is finally delivered. I congratulate all who worked hard to bring justice to the poor victims. I feel proud of our country’s judiciary.
The Jesuit prelate told UCA News Feb. 26 that the verdict was a negative signal to sectarian groups and people who want to isolate religious minorities such as Christians and Muslims, and call them non-Indians. Bishop Rozario says the verdict is a lesson for such groups. Christians in his tribal-dominated diocese have faced problems from Hindu groups.
State officials refused to comment on the verdict. Legislator Madhu Srivastava, who was accused of intimidating and bribing Shaikh, said he felt "very sad over the judgment."
"These people were let off by a local court here and the acquittal was confirmed by the High Court. Vested interests have used (Teesta) Setalvad to malign the state" and the ruling government, Srivastava told UCA News with an expressionless face.
Setalvad, the rights activist who helped Shaikh reopen the case, told media Feb. 24 that she was "satisfied, because the judge has held that whatever was said against me was completely false and defamatory"