India retries pivotal Hindu-Muslim hate crime

On Monday, the notorious Best Bakery case nudged closer to a trial date.

When a Hindu mob stormed a bakery and killed 14, including two Muslims burnt alive in ovens, the gruesome crime became the symbol of religious violence that gripped India two years ago and left nearly 1,000 dead.

Now, in what appears to be a second chance for justice, the Best Bakery case moved this week one step toward retrial.

The first trial, held in May 2003 in the state of Gujarat, where the massacre took place, ended in the acquittal of all 21 of the accused rioters after the victims changed their testimony. The Indian Supreme Court last April ordered a retrial out of state, calling state officials "modern-day Neros" for ignoring the complaints of witnesses that they had been politically harassed and pressured to change their testimony by police and state officials.

The opportunity for another trial in this cornerstone case is seen here as an important chance to resolve a major irritant in Hindu- Muslim relations and a chance to chip away at the pervasive problem of witness tampering in the Indian justice system.

"This case has been a kind of systematic failure of the Indian legal system," says Teesta Setalwad, a human rights activist who led the effort to get the case a second hearing. "This has been a symbol, hopefully, to revive the criminal justice system in India."

In a country where prosecutors win violent criminal cases only 4 percent of the time, some dramatic reforms are required, Ms. Setalwad says. "In India, we have failed (in providing justice.) Trials take 10 years to finish. Witnesses turn hostile and change their testimony. The whole system needs to change."

The trouble in Gujarat began at a train station in Godhra on Feb. 27, 2002, when a train car full of Hindu activists was torched, killing 68 passengers. For more than two months, Hindu rioters took their revenge on Muslim neighbors, killing nearly 1,000 citizens. Police claimed they were unable to contain the rioters, but later, senior officials admitted to human rights activists that they had been directed by Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi to allow the "anticipated Hindu reaction" to run its course.

Mr. Modi, a member of the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, has claimed that his state apparatus had done everything it could to keep the peace, but has also called the riots a "natural reaction" to the Godhra attack.

The Best Bakery case was once seen as the best chance to bring the rioters to justice, some of whom included police officials and activists of the BJP and other Hindu nationalist groups. The star witness, Zahira Shaikh, named 21 of the rioters directly involved in the murders of 11 members of her Muslim family as well as their 3 Hindu employees. But on May 17, 2003, she changed her testimony. Later, Ms. Shaikh told reporters that she had been threatened by a BJP state legislator, Madhu Srivastava, who had escorted her to the courthouse.

"He told me, 'Think about what you have to do. If you don't, you will suffer,'" Ms. Shaikh later told India Today magazine. "I knew I had two options: to get justice for dead family members, or save those who were living."

Mr. Srivastava denies having threatened Shaikh, but admits that he did escort Shaikh to court to protect her from the crowd. "She was receiving threats," he told reporters at the time.

On Monday, a judge in Mumbai gave the case one more nudge toward a trial date, ordering Gujarat to issue warrants against 10 of the 21 accused rioters who had not been apprehended.

Even with a second chance to give testimony, free of coercion, the Best Bakery case will not be an easy conviction. The Shaikh family has given two versions of the story and estranged members of the family tell an entirely different story.

Yet whatever the outcome of the Best Bakery case, the very fact that it got a retrial at all - and that, out of Gujarat - may have reverberations. On Aug. 3, the Indian Supreme Court is scheduled to hear arguments from six other heinous cases similar to Best Bakery, which are also pushing to be tried outside Gujarat.

The largest of these, the massacre of 89 Muslims in the district of Naroda-Patiya, occurred the day after the Godhra tragedy. Police waited nearly a year to investigate this case or to press charges.

While some activists say Best Bakery will bring legal reforms that will guarantee more professionalism and less political interference in future cases, others like Mr. Jethmalani says a deeper reform within human character is needed.

"Either out of communal motives [of promoting hatred toward the Muslim community] or out of some political motives by the state leaders, the investigation was totally unequal to their task," says Mr. Jethmalani. Yet the problems seen in the case go far beyond Gujarat.

"I must compliment the people of India for setting their face against such fundamentalism, when they voted against the BJP in the last elections," he says. But the decline in human character and the rise of fundamentalism "is getting worse," he adds, and not "just in India but in the West as well."

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