Best Bakery case
The Best Bakery case (also called Tulsi Bakery case) was a legal case involving the burning down of the Best Bakery, a small bakery outlet in the Hanuman Tekri area in Vadodara, India, on March 1, 2002. During the incident, a mob targeted the Sheikh family which ran the bakery and had taken refuge inside, resulting in the deaths of 14 (11 Muslims including family members and 3 Hindu employees of the bakery). This case has come to symbolize the carnage, and the alleged complicity of the state government of Gujarat, during the 2002 Gujarat violence.
On March 1, 2002, communal frenzy enveloped Vadodara. The Best Bakery, a small outlet in the Hanuman Tekri area of Vadodara, was attacked by a mob, which burned down the bakery, killing 14 people. This attack was part of the 2002 Gujarat violence.
Amnesty International reports that in many cases of the Gujarat violence, police recorded complaints in a defective manner, failed to collect witnesses' statements as well as corroborative evidence and did not investigate the responsibility of eminent suspects. The Best Bakery case was seen by human rights organizations in India as a test case given that what Amnesty calls "strong evidence" against the accused existed, but the victims gained little justice.
Case and acquittal
The day after the attack, Zaheera Sheikh filed the first informant complaint. Sheikh, a 19-year-old during the incident, was a key and notable witness. She stated that she saw her family members burn to death. When the mob gathered, shouting communal slogans, her family fled to the terrace and some locked themselves in a first-floor room. The mob set the bakery on fire and killings continued from 6 pm to 10 am the next day. Her statements were recounted for many publications.
All of the 21 accused were acquitted on June 27, 2003 by Additional sessions judge H U Mahida of the Vadodara fast track court Other witnesses had suffered head injuries and were not in a mental state to give an accurate witness account. The state government pointed to the lapses by the police in "registering and recording of FIR" (First Information Report) and on the part of the prosecution in "recording of evidence" of witnesses in the Best Bakery case.
Amnesty International criticized the judgment as "the lack of government commitment to ensuring justice to victims of the communal violence in Gujarat." India's National Human Rights Commission described it as a "miscarriage of justice" and, along with other petitioners, argued that the case should be investigated by an independent agency. The Supreme court also expressed displeasure at the acquittal.
The Indian Supreme Court also criticized the government. Chief Justice VN Khare said he had "no confidence" in the Gujarat government. The Supreme court demanded a retrial. Three Supreme Court judges ordered the head of Gujarat police and the chief secretary to appear before the court to explain their actions in the controversy.
The judgement said "It was proved beyond doubt that a violent mob had attacked the bakery and killed 12 persons. However, there was no legally acceptable evidence to prove that any of the accused presented before the court had committed the crime." The judgement was critical of the police for delay in registering FIR and for not investigating the incident properly and harassing innocent people. It was reported that key witnesses in the case had lied in court out of fear for their lives as they had been given death threats. Key witnesses in the case include the wife and daughter of the bakery owner. According to their testimony to the police and the National Human Rights Commission, 500 people had attacked the bakery. They also accused party politicians of threatening and harassing them into withdrawing their testimony.
The Gujarat government responded by pointing out many other cases where the guilty were left unpunished. Solicitor General Mukul Rohatgi cited the anti-Sikh riots of 1984 and said many of the accused are still free.
The Supreme Court ordered that the retrial be moved out of Gujarat after accusing the state government of judicial failures. The Gujarat government filed an amended appeal in the Gujarat High Court seeking retrial of the case. The appeal was admitted by the Gujarat High Court. After being indicted by the Supreme Court of India, the police registered a case against a Bharatiya Janata Party legislator for intimidating witnesses to the incident. The Government of Gujarat admitted there were lapses on the part of the police in registering and recording FIR in the case and on the part of the prosecution in recording the evidence of witnesses. It said the police had attempted to help the accused by not submitting names of the accused.
A key witness admitted lying in court and not testifying against the accused. She said she had been threatened by senior figures in the local organisation of Gujarat's ruling right-wing Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party. Thus 17 charged with murdering 14 people, were retried in a case beginning in 2004.
Zaheera Sheikh retracted her statement again. She stated that the judgment passed by the Gujarat court was correct. She also stated that she had never met the legislator. She claims that she made all the statements under the pressure of NGO activist Teesta Setalvad.
The prosecution declared Zaheera Sheikh to be a hostile witness. A tape by Tehelka claimed that Zaheera had been bribed by an MLA. Masjlis-e-Shura, an apex decision-making body of Muslims, consequently declared Sheikh a 'dissembler', effectively ousting her from the Muslim community. The organization gave as its reason that Zaheera was "tarnishing [the community's] image by making false statements."
Sheikh was sentenced by the Indian Supreme Court to one year in prison for perjury in the murder, after being found guilty by the court of lying. She was also fined 50,000 rupees (US$1,000), which, if unpaid, would increase her time in prison by another year.
In February 2006, a court in India convicted nine of the 21 people of murder, sentencing them to life imprisonment. It acquitted 8 others, while issuing warrants for the arrest of four missing persons.
The judgement, called "landmark" by BBC journalist Sanjoy Majumder, brought the case to an end. The case has the legacy of being "one of the country's most controversial and high profile trials." Of the nine convicted for life by the trial court, Bombay High Court acquitted 5 for want of evidence, but upheld the sentence in respect of the remaining four.
Allegation of false depositions
2012 Bombay High Court
On July 9, 2012, the Bombay High Court, upheld the life sentences of four accused, Sanjay Thakkar, Bahadursingh Chauhan, Sanabhai Baria and Dinesh Rajbhar on the basis of four eyewitnesses accounts, who were injured bakery employees and identified the accused. It also acquitted five accused, Rajubhai Baria, Pankaj Gosavi, Jagdish Rajput, Suresh alias Lalo Devjibhai Vasava and Shailesh Tadvi, for lack of evidence.
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- Chronology of events in Best Bakery case, February 24, 2006.
- "Best Bakery case: Bombay HC acquits 5, upholds life term to 4". July 9, 2012.
- Court raps Gujarat over riot case
- Best Bakery: Why it is so important
- Best Bakery case file. Tehelka
- Murder charges in Gujarat trial. Wednesday, 22 September 2004. BBC
- India: Best Bakery case - concerns for justice. AMNESTY INTERNATIONAL PRESS RELEASE
- Best Bakery Factfile
- "Best Bakery case: MLA now claims Zaheera was paid off a year ago." Newindpress.com
- Zaheera's second brother also does a U-turn
- Gujarat govt admits lapses in Best Bakery case, December 23, 2003.
- Majumder, Sanjoy. "Gujarat and the judges' anger," 12 September 2003. BBC news
- Citizens for Justice and Peace (CJP)
- Gujarat riot murder retrial opens
- Masjlis-e-Shura declares Zaheera an outcast
- Pandey, Geeta.'Best Bakery perjurer' surrenders. BBC News
- Life sentences in India riot case. BBC News.
- Majumander, Sanjoy. Landmark judgement raises hope. BBC News.
- "Best Bakery case: Bombay HC acquits 5, upholds life term to 4". 9 July 2012.
- Gujarat's Best Bakery case: Teesta forced me to lie, says Witness, Hetal Vyas, Apr 30, 2011, timesofindia.indiatimes.com
- Best Bakery case: Yasmeen moves HC; says she was misguided by Teesta, ITGD Bureau, Mumbai, April 29, 2011, indiatoday.intoday.in
- "Best Bakery case: 5 let off, 4 nailed". Hindustan Times. July 9, 2012.
- "Best Bakery case: 5 acquitted, life term for four upheld". The Hindu. July 9, 2012.