Wed, Jul 02, 2003 - Page 5 News List

Trial of accused arsonists fizzles

DOUSED Hindus accused of setting fire to a bakery and killing 14 people were exonerated when the key witness suddenly and unexpectedly recanted her story

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , VADODARA, INDIA

A Hindu devotee carries a bicycle with his teeth during a festival in Ahmedabad in the western Indian state of Gujarat on Monday.

PHOTO: REUTERS

Zahira Sheikh's moment, it seemed, had finally arrived.

Last month, Sheikh, a 20-year-old Indian Muslim, took the witness stand in the trial of 21 Hindu neighbors whom her family had accused of burning 11 Muslims and three Hindu workers alive in their family bakery.

The victims included her older sister, three women, twin 4-year-old girls, two babies and her uncle, who was hacked to death.

The killings were among the most gruesome in the anti-Muslim riots last year in Gujarat state, which killed about 1,000 people, the vast majority of whom were Muslims.

In the year since, Sheikh has emerged as the public face of the victims in this industrial city of 1.5 million in western India, an overwhelmingly Hindu nation.

Vowing not to marry until the perpetrators were punished, Sheikh tearfully told journalists and human rights investigators how jeering Hindus, enraged by the killing of 59 Hindus in another part of the state, surrounded the family business, Best Bakery, and set it ablaze.

She and her mother, brother, grandmother, and sister-in-law made it to the roof and narrowly survived.

But when her day in court finally came, Sheikh reportedly arrived with a prominent local Hindu nationalist politician. She took the witness stand, said that none of her neighbors were involved, and has since disappeared.

"She said, `These are the people who saved me,"' said Muhammad Hanif Sheikh, a Muslim lawyer who watched the proceedings in dismay. "She helped the accused."

Over the next several days, the relatives who survived with her took the stand and also exonerated the defendants. By the end of the trial, 24 of the 73 witnesses had recanted. On Friday, a judge, citing a lack of evidence and shoddy police work, acquitted the 21 defendants and set them free.

The verdict has drawn nationwide attention and prompted local Muslim leaders and human rights groups to accuse Hindu nationalists of sabotaging efforts to prosecute Hindus involved in the riots. They say Zahira Sheikh and her family were threatened, bribed or both.

In a report issued Monday in New York, Human Rights Watch said that 16 months after the riots, no defendant had been convicted. Muslims are being prosecuted under India's strict anti-terrorism laws, the group said, while Hindus are not.

The police are downgrading charges against Hindu defendants, filing false charges to cover up their own role in the violence, deleting the names of the accused and failing to pursue rape cases, Human Rights Watch said.

Hindu nationalists, who were overwhelmingly re-elected to office here early this year, have denied the charges and said the scale of the attacks on Muslims had been exaggerated. They said they had played no role in Zahira Sheikh's case.

Madhu Shrivastav, the Hindu nationalist who reportedly accompanied Zahira Sheikh to court, said he had never met her.

"I don't know who she is," said Shrivastav, a burly, bearded man who wears a pistol on his belt, gold rings and a gold watch. "I never talked to Zahira."

Local Muslims said the faith of India's 140 million Muslims in the country's commitment to equal justice is again being tested in Gujarat. The state's Hindu nationalist rulers and the police were accused of standing by as Muslims were killed during the riots. Now they are being accused of generating a climate of fear and skewing the judicial process.

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