The Bombay High Court on Tuesday directed the Gujarat government to pay an increased compensation of Rs.3 lakh to each of the four key eyewitnesses in the Best Bakery riots case. The four persons were seriously injured in the incident.
The directions come a day after a Division Bench of Justices V.M. Kanade and P.D. Kode acquitted five accused and upheld the life sentence given to four other accused.
The eyewitnesses entitled to the increased compensation and whose testimonies were relied upon by the court to uphold the convictions are: Tufil Ahmed Siddiqui, Raees Khan, Shahzad Khan Pathan and Shailun Khan Pathan.
The court also directed Gujarat to give the same compensation to witness Yasmeen Shaikh and to the families of two other deceased persons, whose remains could not be found. It said the compensation of Rs. 2,000 paid to the witnesses was “inadequate” in light of “the ordeal they have undergone”.
The Bench dismissed the application of Ms. Shaikh, finding her evidence to be “untrustworthy”. She had alleged that she was “lured and misguided” into giving false testimony by social activist Teesta Setalvad.
However, the court observed that it would not have been possible for Ms. Setalvad or anybody to tutor the four witnesses and Yasmeen.
“It would be wrong to attribute a motive to her,” it said. The Bench dismissed Ms. Setalvad’s application for intervention.
“The court believed the witness statements where the identity of the accused and the occurrence of the incident is concerned, but discarded certain improvements on the testimony,” defence counsel Mangesh Pawar told The Hindu on the phone.
The court observed that the prosecution had “sufficient opportunity” to further record the statements of the witnesses. It expressed surprise that the trial court did not ask for “the prosecution’s stand with respect to the specific directions of the Supreme Court” to reinvestigate the case.
“The trial court should have asked for the prosecution’s stand on the directions of the Supreme Court,” Justice Kanade said.
The judge said the “trial court made a serious error” in treating the statement of eyewitness Zaheera Sheikh as an FIR and then using the statement of Deputy Commissioner of Police Piyush Patel to corroborate it.
Calling for a strong government witness protection programme, the court expressed the hope that the Habibullah family, who owned the bakery, would be rehabilitated “in the same place and in the same occupation.”
“The time has come for the State government to have witness protection programme so that witnesses are not left at the mercy of various forces. In this case, the victims lost their houses and some died. We cannot but observe their plight, which is reflected in their conduct at various stages of the trial. In fact [some] have been charged with perjury and undergone sentence… Situations like this can only be avoided by proper police protection,” the court observed.