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‘Trembling With Fear, We Lied In Court’

By Abhishek Kapoor & Ayesha Khan

Sunday Indian Express
06 July, 2003

Barely one week after the court set free all 21 accused in the Best Bakery massacre in the Gujarat riots, Sehrunissa Sheikh, one of the main witnesses and wife of the bakery owner, has come out and told The Sunday Express that she lied in court ‘‘trembling with fear’’ for her life. She is still afraid of being killed, she says, but if she gets ‘‘support,’’ she will speak the truth.

Sehrunissa’s startling admission, in a tape-recorded interview, puts a question mark on the entire case. For she and her 18-year-old daughter Zaheera were two key witnesses—nine of the 14 burned alive or hacked in the massacre were their relatives—who retracted their accusatory statements in court, leading to the collapse of the case. Three Hindu labourers at the bakery were also killed in the attack.

Announcing the verdict on June 27, the judge called the incident a ‘‘blot’’ on the city, slammed the police and the quality of the prosecution.

The Sunday Express met Sehrunissa, 50, at her house in the Ekta Nagar slum on the outskirts of the city. ‘‘Dehelte dehelte kaanpte kaanpte jhooth bola tha court mein,’’ she said. (Trembling with fear, we lied in court).

And she says she wasn’t the only one to do so. In fact, out of the 73 witnesses who deposed, as many as 41 turned hostile. ‘‘Just as we lied, others also lied. Everyone lied. Who knows why? They may also have been under pressure. The pressure must have come from where we used to stay (Hanuman Tekri). Nobody supported us.’’

She doesn’t name BJP MLA Madhu Shrivastava, who accompanied Zaheera on the day she turned hostile but keeps referring to a ‘‘daadhiwala aadmi’’(a bearded man).

Shrivastava, who sports a beard, admits to having supported the accused, he claims were all wrongly booked.

Contacted by The Sunday Express, Shrivastava denied any role, saying that it was ‘‘out of humanity,’’ that he had gone to court. ‘‘Zaheera had come to the court,’’ he said, ‘‘but I could not see her as she was in a burqa.’’

Asked whether he gave any assistance to the witnesses, he was cryptic: ‘‘They were left alone in time of need even by their own people. No one from their community or any leader counselled them. What could they have done when faced with a dozen lawyers? So they turned hostile.’’

But Sehrunissa said the pressure was intense: ‘‘Apne ko dhamki bhi aayi ki tum bole to tumko yahan aane nahin denge. Mar denge. (We received threats that if we speak we will not be allowed to come here. We would be killed).’’

She said some of the threats came through another critical witness in the case, a local scrap-dealer Lal Mohammed, who also turned hostile.

‘‘Lal Mohammed aa kar bola tha mere ko. Kayi bar doosro se bhi bulwaya usne. Usne phone par bhi dhamki di. Bola agar tum court mein jubani doge to marva denge tumko. Zaheera court tak nahin pahunch payegee. To hum apne aap kya karte. Dar ke maare jaban badal diye. (Lal Mohammad came here to tell us this. Several times he sent threats through others. He called up to threaten us as well. He warned that if we told the truth in court we would be killed and that Zaheera would not be allowed to reach court. In fear, we retracted our statements).’’

Asked why Lal Mohammed was threatening them, she said: ‘‘Kya pata, usko bhi dhamkaya hoga... (How do I know? Perhaps he was also threatened.’’) Lal Mohammed’s family lives in the same slum cluster near Sehrunissa’s house. His house too was burnt during the riots.

The Sunday Express questioned Sehrunissa to explore possible motives behind her decision:

• Why are you coming out now? Why didn’t you complain to the police?

I am speaking because I have been approached by you (The Sunday Express). I haven’t even seen the government pleader. I don’t know who he is. (As for going to the police) sab mile hue hain (everyone is mixed up).

Says govt lawyer Raghuvir Pandya: ‘‘Mine is a public office and anyone can come in. If they (Sehrunissa and her family) did not come, it’s their responsibility.’’

• Do you want the case to be re-opened?

I will speak the truth if I get the support. Otherwise, won’t I get killed?

• Some say that money changed hands, that a rift within the family has caused you to speak up now?

What do people think and say? They speak of Rs 25 lakh, Rs 12 lakh being paid, we’ve not got even 1 lakh.

His daughter told The Sunday Express today that her father was away, there are reports that he is in Pune, ever since he testified in court. Asked about the speculation that witnesses were paid to turn hostile, Sehrunissa said: ‘‘What do people think and say? Some say we took 25 lakh, some say 12 lakh, but I did not get even a lakh.’’

When it was pointed out that it was because of their turning hostile that the accused got away, she said: ‘‘Chhoot gaye to mein kya kar sakti hoon usme (What can I do if they went free?)’’

On being told about an NHRC team arriving from Delhi, which might have the case re-opened and re-investigated, she said she would tell the truth — if supported by her people. ‘‘Yehi jubani denge jo pehle wali inhone hi kiya hai...hamara saath denge to...nahin to itne jan chootenge to maar nahin dalenge humko. (I will depose as I did in my original statement if my people support me. Otherwise, if so many people are acquitted, they will kill me),’’ she said.

Sehrunissa said that on the day of her deposition, the presence of a large number of goons, including the daadiwala aadmi (reference to Shrivastava) was intimidating. ‘‘Lots of people were there, some signalling at us with their eyes. I put my head down and deposed. After all, one is afraid for one’s life. The bearded man was also there. They all stood there staring,’’ she said.

That fateful night she said they were all neighbours; In court a yearlater: I couldn’t see, it was dark

What happened at Best Bakery

On March 1, 2002, two days after the Godhra carnage, a mob attacked Best Bakery. The Muslims inside, including the Sheikh family which ran the bakery, were the target.

Some of the bakery workers were Hindus. The mob killed 14, including 4 children, burning and hacking them. Bodies of two persons were never found. Police came across burnt bones. Forensic tests confirmed the bones belonged to more than one person.

What they said and what they unsaid

Sehrunissa and daughter Zahira Sheikh the day after the attack: ‘‘Jayanti chaiwala, Mahesh Munna, Thakker ke do ladke were leading the mob. There were shouts of ‘‘Kill them, kill the Muslims, burn their houses.’’ We ran towards the terrace, some 20 of us. The mob was hurling petrol bombs at us...threatening to rape us...My mama, my sister Shabira and my mama’s children, Zainab and Shabnam (twins), were burnt alive...In all, 14 persons were burnt and killed. My chacha’s entire family and a sister were burnt alive. All the attackers were from the mohalla.’’

Sehrunissa in court on May 9, 2003:

‘‘I don’t know what the mob was doing below. We were scared, hiding. I couldn’t see anything as it was dark and there was smoke all around.’’

Zahira also turned hostile on May 17

‘‘As the mob gathered, I ran upstairs with my family. I was very scared, so I hid. I don’t know what the mob was doing below. No, I had not gone to make a complaint. Police took my statement and signature. My statements of March 9 and April 1, 2002, to the police are false. It was dark, full of smoke, I can’t recall anyone.’’

With Sehrunissa’s statement that she lied in court, The Sunday Express contacted

BJP MLA Madhu Shrivastava: ‘‘Kanoon andha hota hai (The law is blind). It’s based on evidence. Once the case has been decided in court, not much can be done. I don’t think the situation will change even if the case is reopened.’’

Gujarat Home minister Amit Shah: ‘‘The government could have acted had it been informed of the threat by Zahira or her mother. If they had complained to us or to police or even to the court, then we could have done something. How do we know? They should have come out in the open. Why now?’’

Investigating Officer P P Kanani: Now posted in Ahmedabad, he was unavailable for comment.

D A Desai, former Supreme Court judge: ‘‘Reinvestigation is unlikely. If done, it will produce the same result. I think it won’t do now. They can be prosecuted for perjury.”