The Bombay High Court on Monday acquitted five accused, and upheld the conviction of four in the 2002 Best Bakery case.
A Division Bench of Justices V. M. Kanade and P. D. Kode cited want of evidence for acquitting Rajubhai Baria, Pankaj Gosai, Jagdish Rajput, Suresh alias Lalo Devjibhai Vasava, and Shailesh Tadvi. They have to be “released forthwith unless required in different cases,” the court ruled.
The four whose life term has been upheld are Bahadursinh Chauhan, Dinesh Rajbhar, Shanabhai Baria, and Sanjay Thakker. Their sentences on all counts will run concurrently.
“Of the total 17 accused in the case at the trial court, nine were convicted in 2006. These nine accused had appealed against their convictions before the Bombay High Court. Five of them have been completely exonerated,” defence counsel Adhik Shirodkar told The Hindu on the phone.
The court noted “serious lapses” in the police’s recording of witness statements. “As far as the acquittals are concerned, five eyewitness statements have been disbelieved by the court. Our contention was that none of these witnesses have given names, description of the accused or their acts,” Mr. Shirodkar said.
The five were given the benefit of doubt, defence counsel, Deodutt Jambaulikar, told The Hindu on the phone. “Witnesses with respect to these five haven’t specified their role.”
As for the convictions, the court relied on the witness statements of four injured Best Bakery employees, who had identified the accused and testified to their presence at the bakery during the post-Godhra communal riots.
“There were 10 eyewitnesses in all, but five turned hostile. Of the remaining five, the evidence of Shaikh Yasmeen Bano [a key prosecution witness] hasn’t been considered. So, upholding the convictions was on the basis of four witnesses, who have named the accused as well as identified them,” said Mr. Jambaulikar.
He said the court remarked that certain statements ought to have been recorded by the police.
“When the Supreme Court,” said Mr. Shirodkar, “transferred the matter to Mumbai, it had given directions that the police could further investigate, but they didn’t do it.”
Social activist, Teesta Setalvad, said, “We were interested in the process giving a fair trail. The fact that four have been convicted by the High Court when all were acquitted in Vadodara has justified our stand. We must also understand that none of the injured worker witnesses were even brought forward by the prosecution in Vadodara, and the prosecutor functioned in a partisan manner. The rest is an assessment of evidence.”
In a twist to the trial, Yasmeen Bano moved the Bombay High Court last April, alleging that she was “lured and misguided” into giving a false testimony by Ms. Setalvad. Ms. Setalvad then filed an intervening application, asking the court to hear her view while deciding the appeals. The court is slated to decide on her petition when it gives its remarks on Tuesday.
Fourteen people, who took refuge in the Best Bakery, owned by the Shaikh family, in Vadodara, during the post-Godhra riots, were killed on March 1, 2002. An angry crowd attacked the bakery, looting and burning it down. It targeted the Muslims inside, including the Sheikh family.
In 2004, rapping the Gujarat government for its handling of the case in the light of acquittals, the Supreme Court ordered a retrial, and transferred the case to Mumbai.
In February 2006, the sessions court in Mumbai sentenced nine to life imprisonment. The court later tried and convicted Ms. Bano’s sister-in-law, Zaheera Shaikh, and some others who had turned hostile for perjury. In 2008, the Bilkees Bano case was transferred to Mumbai.