//Human rights issue: US Govt report indicts Gujarat Govt

Human rights issue: US Govt report indicts Gujarat Govt

Annual report of Human Rights Dept expresses continued concern on Govt’s alleged inaction against riot perpetrators

Express News Service , March 11, 2007

Ahmedabad, March 10: Gujarat occupies a big space in the Indian section of the Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for the year 2006, released by the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labour of the US Government. The annual report, released earlier this week, expresses its “continued concern” about the alleged failure of the Gujarat Government to take action against those responsible for communal violence. Excerpts from the report:

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Through December 2005, 217 persons were arrested and remained in custody in Gujarat under POTA in connection with the 2003 killing of former Gujarat minister Haren Pandya, the 2003 Akshardham temple bombing, the 2002 Godhra train arson case, and the 2002 tiffin bomb case. During the year the tiffin bomb case trial was completed, leading to 12 acquittals and five convictions. In July the Supreme Court appointed a judge from the Delhi Sessions Court to review the evidence of nine major trials (the Godhra trial among them), which had been stayed by the Supreme Court since 2003. By year’s end, the judge had not concluded his review. In July a POTA court in Ahmedabad convicted all six accused in the 2002 Akashardham temple terrorist attack, which killed 34 persons. Of the six accused, three were sentenced to death and one to life in prison. By the end of the year, the Godhra trial had not commenced.

There was continued concern about the failure of the Gujarat government to arrest and convict those responsible for the widespread communal violence in 2002 following the burning in Godhra of the S-6 coach of the Sabarmati Express train, in which 59 men, women, and children died. In the days following the train burning, Hindu mobs killed hundreds of Muslims, displaced tens of thousands, and destroyed thousands of dollars worth of property.

In many cases attempts to hold perpetrators of the Gujarat violence accountable were hampered by the manner in which police recorded complaints. Victims related that police refused to register their complaints, recorded the details in such a way as to lead to lesser charges, omitted the names of prominent people involved in attacks, and did not arrest suspects, particularly supporters of the BJP. Human Rights Watch alleged that instead of helping Muslims find their relatives’ bodies, the Gujarat police victimised and harassed them. In August 2004 Supreme Court instructed the Gujarat High Court to appoint a committee of high-level police officials to re-examine the 2,032 closed cases out of a total of 4,252 complaints filed and determine whether any should be reopened. In February , Gujarat police informed Supreme Court they would re-examine the closure of 1,600 of the 2,032 cases, and reinvestigate some of cases by filing fresh FIRs. Media reported that officials attempting to conduct a serious investigation were promptly removed from the case.

The first of the convictions in post-Godhra riot cases came in 2003, when the Kheda district court sentenced 12 persons to life in prison. In December 2005, a special court sentenced 11 Hindus to life in prison for killing 11 Muslims. In other cases that concluded during the year, the accused were acquitted due to a lack of evidence, faulty investigations or because witnesses had been bribed or were afraid to testify. Human rights groups alleged that, with the exception of the high profile cases in which the Supreme Court has taken interest, accused persons were most likely to be acquitted.

In 2002, Hindu assailants burnt the Best Bakery in Vadodara, killing 14 persons. On February 24, the Mumbai retrial of the Best Bakery case found nine defendants guilty of murder by arson and sentenced them to life imprisonment, while another eight were acquitted. In March the Supreme Court convicted principal witness Zaheera Shaikh, whose family owned the Bakery, of perjury after she repeatedly changed her testimony, according to HRW and Amnesty International, due to intimidation by prominent members of the BJP. On March 29, Shaikh was sentenced to one year in prison and was serving sentence in a Mumbai jail.

Police officials and local authorities allegedly unearthed mass graves from the 2002 Gujarat violence early in the year. It was alleged that in several cases police originally tried to bury and conceal evidence. In Kalol, CBI held six policemen and two doctors for destroying evidence and shielding the accused in theRandhikpur massacre.

In addition, some bodies from the Kidiad killings, where over 70 persons were burnt alive in March 2005 in two cars at Limbadiya Chowki in Sabarkantha district, were found in Panam dam. According to police records, a case of eight deaths was reported. Following the 2002 acquittal of all accused in the Kidiad killings by a judge based in Godhra, the Supreme Court issued a notice, and the State Government fired the two prosecutors involved in the case. An appeal was filed before the State High Court. The Gujarat police dismissed the unearthing of the mass grave as an unnecessary publicity campaign by victims’ family members.

The other high-profile trial Bilkis Bano gang rape case, was ongoing in a Mumbai court as of year’s end. The Gujarat government claimed police had re-opened investigations against 5,384 persons in Ahmedabad and 24,683 persons in the state. However, analysis by the Islamic Relief Committee of Gujarat revealed only a small number of the investigations actually led to convictions. As of October there were fewer than 10 convictions out of 217 cases concluded in the lower courts of Gujarat. The government’s legal department advised against appealing most of the acquittals in the remaining cases. Only few cases were appealed to higher courts.

All Gujarat-related cases are under investigation in an official inquiry conducted by retired Justices G.T. Nanavati and K.G. Shah. HRW reported in 2005 that Hindu extremists threatened and intimidated victims, witnesses, and human rights activists attempting to prosecute those who committed crimes during the 2002 Gujarat riots. It asserted that instead of pursuing the perpetrators of violence, the Gujarat government nurtured a climate of fear. Report alleged that Gujarat government launched selective tax probes against some Islamic organisations to pressure Muslim witnesses to withdraw charges against Hindu nationalists. According to HRW’s annual report, “The Gujarat government again failed to probe and prosecute those responsible for attacks on Muslims during riots in 2002.” According to AI’s May annual human rights report, “The perpetrators of human rights violations in India continue to enjoy impunity, particularly in Gujarat. The survivors of targeted killings and sexual violence in Gujarat in 2002 continued to be denied justice and reparation.” The Gujarat government denied the charge.