In another twist in the controversial Best Bakery case of the 2002 Gujarat riots, the Bombay High Court on Monday acquitted five of the nine accused, even as it upheld the life sentences awarded to four others by a lower court in 2006. The high court said there wasn't enough evidence against the acquitted accused. On March 1, 2002, 14 people - including women and children - were burnt to death in Vadodra after the riots broke out.
The court upheld the sentences of the guilty as it found merit in the testimonies given by four injured eyewitnesses who had identified them on that fateful day armed with swords and sticks.
The court also slammed the Gujarat police pointing out that there were serious lapses in the investigation with regard to "recording of statements of witnesses." The detailed judgement is likely to be out on Tuesday.Best Bakery: Controversial Past
The Best Bakery case has seen many flip flops since 2003. After the riots, the prime eye witness and complainant Zaheera Sheikh in the case turned hostile along with 36 other witnesses during the trial held in a Vadodara court. The fall out: the court let off all 21 accused.
Zaheera then moved the Supreme Court stating witnesses had turned hostile as they were intimidated by families of the accused. The Supreme Court while ordering a re-trial slammed the Narendra Modi-led BJP government and in an unprecedented move transferred the case to the neighbouring state of Maharashtra.
Seventeen accused were retried in a highly secure court in Mumbai but once again Zaheera turned hostile, this time accusing social activist and her one-time guide Teesta Setalvad of tutoring and pressurising her. Sessions judge Abhay Thipsay, however, convicted nine of the 17 accused and said in his judgement that Zaheera and her family had lied to the court. ''The evidence of the hostile witnesses leaves in no manner any doubt that they were lying and have been tutored. It also appears that they been given monetary inducements.''
Judge Thipsay also added, "The hostile witnesses attempted to make a mockery of justice. It was shocking that Zaheera turned hostile during the trial and the retrial. Even more shocking that Zaheera refused to have lodged the initial FIR, a document she had signed."
Pointing fingers are other "forces" the judge observed, "The hostile witnesses have fallen in hands of forces who made them lie. The forces did so not just to acquit the accused, but for much broader reasons. It is doubtful that they would ever be brought to book"
Two months after the judgement, in April 2006, the Supreme Court convicted Zaheera Sheikh for contempt of court and sentenced her to a year's jail term which she served at the Byculla Jail in Mumbai.
After the judgement on Monday, prosecution sources said they would appeal against the order in the Supreme Court.