Push for justice in India riots

The victims of the 2002 attacks in the state of Gujarat have transformed India's sluggish legal system.

Anwar Ismail Vohra lost everything he owned when a mob of Hindus torched his property four years ago in this nondescript village in the state of Gujarat. A maze of idle bricks strewn about the compound is the only sign of his once sprawling two-story house and grocery store.

Now Mr. Vohra lives with his large family in a ghetto - in abominable living conditions - hundreds of miles away from here. And he won't return home to restart his life again, he says, until he has his day in court and the mob is brought to justice.

"I will never compromise with them," he says decidedly. "Even if it means I can never go home again."

More than 1,000 people, mostly Muslims, were killed in the Gujarat riots of 2002. The quest for justice by victims of the Gujarat violence has already transformed India's sluggish, and at times Kafkaesque, legal system and given new hope to those like Vohra.

For the first time ever in the judicial history of India, a riot case - the Best Bakery case - was transferred outside a state in order to ensure the trial could move forward and was decided fairly.

Only a few Gujarat riot cases have been brought to courts in the last four years. Fewer still have resulted in convictions. To remedy the problem, India's Supreme Court stepped in, ordering the retrial in Gujarat of nearly 2,000 cases that were systematically shut down by the Gujarat government for two years. Acting on the verdict, the Gujarat government ordered in January the reopening of more than 1,600 riot cases, including Vohra's.

In the most celebrated case, known as Best Bakery, a Gujarat court in 2003 absolved all 21 defendants who stood accused of taking part in an arson attack on a bakery owned by a Muslim family. After the Supreme Court moved the case to Bombay, nine people were sentenced to life in prison for the killing of 14 people in the attack.

The Bombay court issued another rare verdict: Zaheera Sheikh, a Muslim woman who was the prime witness in this case, was sentenced to a year in prison for perjury, and ordered to pay a fine of approximately $1,000.

"Justice has been done," says Mr. V.N. Khare, the former chief justice of India, who was instrumental in ordering the retrial of the Best Bakery case outside Gujarat.

Mr. Khare believes convictions in this case were possible only because it was tried in a court outside Gujarat, far beyond the influence of the state government, which many observers say was complicit in the riots.

"Witnesses were able to depose without any fear," he says. "[Before the Supreme Court's intervention] I noticed there was lack of political will to try these cases in Gujarat. The Gujarat government refused to perform its raj dharma - its official duty to protect the state's people and punish the guilty behind the pogrom."

In December last year, a fast track special court in Godhra sentenced 11 people to life imprisonment for killing 11 Muslims in the same riots.

"People are now increasingly pinning their hopes on the judiciary for justice," says Mushtaq Ali, a young lawyer from Delhi who has made Gujarat his home to help victims with legal aid to fight their re-opened cases.

However, Mr. Ali notes that the successes in court are making some people in Gujarat nervous about a hostile backlash. Most riot victims still cannot completely trust the Gujarat police, who are accused of standing by and doing little to protect people during the riots.

A.K. Bhargawa, the Gujarat state police chief, is pessimistic that anything substantial will come of arson cases being reopened because of the complexity of gathering evidence in such cases, four years on. Nevertheless, he says that all reopened cases will be pursued by police officers other than those posted in the riot affected areas. The Gujarat government is also probing 40 police officers for mishandling the communal violence.

"In order to win back the faith of the people," he adds, "an additional Muslim officer is being posted in each district to assist with the re-opened cases. "

Despite police assurances, stories of intimidation in villages where people have returned aren't uncommon in Gujarat, even now.

Gani Ibrahim, a vegetable hawker in Sunao before the riots, was one of the few Muslims that dared to return. He rebuilt his home that was burnt down in the thick of the rioting. But he has lost his ability to earn a living in this village, and has to travel to neighboring villages for work. "No one buys vegetables from us," he says wryly. "No one talks to us."

The Hindu majority in this village refutes these allegations. "Anyone is free to do business here," says Praful Patel, a burly man who is accused of leading a rioting mob to Vohra's house in 2002 - an accusation he denies. "What's happened has happened. Let's forget about it, and move on. We helped each others' communities so much rebuild when the earthquake happened in 2001."

But Mr. Patel admits relations cannot be "perfectly normal" if they were being "dragged to court."

A large number of riot victims are being coerced to concede to taking back their cases. But Vohra and others aren't willing to relent under duress. "If my case is tried outside this state," he says, "I'm sure justice will be meted out."

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