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Best Bakery case: Gujarat assures SC of filing proper appeal

Tara Shankar Sahay in New Delhi/PTI | September 19, 2003 11:32 IST
Last Updated: September 19, 2003 17:31 IST

The Gujarat government on Friday assured the Supreme Court that it would amend the grounds of appeal in the Best Bakery case in the high court to seek further inquiry, collection of additional evidence and a direction for retrial.

The state government is ready for a retrial within the state but is not willing for a probe by an independent agency. It admitted that witnesses could have been 'coerced or won over' to turn hostile leading to acquittal of all the accused but pledged to do 'everything possible' to bring the guilty to book.

Appearing before a three-judge SC bench comprising Chief Justice V N Khare, Justice Brajesh Kumar and Justice S N Sinha, Gujarat's government's Additional Solicitor General Mukul Rohtagi said the Advocate General would personally help draft the appeal, which had come in for severe criticism from the apex court on September 12.

The court was hearing a petition filed by the National Human Rights Commission alleging miscarriage of justice and seeking transfer of trial of four riot cases outside the State.

NHRC counsel Mihir Desai told reporters that the court asked the State's Chief Secretary P K Lahiri and Director-General of Police A K Chakraborty about the progress in the case.

"The Gujarat government had on Thursday filed an affidavit assuring that the state advocate-general would pursue the case and make amendments in the appeal, which has already been filed in the Gujarat high court. But it has not specified what these amendments are going to be," he said.

To assuage the Court, Rohtagi told the bench that the State would, within a week, appoint seasoned advocates as special public prosecutors to conduct the riot cases pending before various trial courts.

State Chief Secretary P K Laheri and Director General of Police A K Chakraborty were called in separately in quick succession and asked why the State did nothing even after noticing that witnesses were turning hostile as the trial progressed. Both the officers were examined by the court, but not under oath.

The bench pointed out that since the alleged culprits were government appointees, the state government could not escape responsibility.

Asked if the State be ready for a CBI investigation into the case, Laheri said, "I have no instruction (in this regard) from the state government."

When asked as to who had instructed him to file the earlier affidavit, on which the court last Friday had passed caustic comments, the chief secretary said it was filed on the advice of the Advocate General with the concurrence of the chief minister and the State law minister.

But it was the DGP who was questioned more incisively by the bench. Noted human rights activist Teesta Setalvad told reporters that the court was not happy when the DGP pleaded ignorance about witnesses turning hostile.

At one point, Chakraborty conceded that he had sought to know from the Commissioner of Police of Baroda district, where the incident occurred, as to why so many witnesses were turning hostile. "The commissioner had told me that the witnesses appear to have been either coerced or won over."

Of the 43 witnesses, 37 had turned hostile. One of them, Zaheera Shaikh, had approached the apex court seeking transfer of the trial to a place outside Gujarat. The trial court, while acquitting all 21 accused, had castigated the police for doing a shoddy job by collecting wrong evidence and roping in wrong accused.

The NHRC had sought a probe by an independent agency as it apprehended that a fair trial was not possible on the basis of the evidence collected by the Gujarat police.

Opposing this plea, Rohtagi said, "We do not want an independent probe. The evidence collected by the police was enough to convict the accused. The trial court has erred in acquitting them. The statements made by the witnesses before the police under section 161 of the Criminal Procedure Code were correct and should not have been overlooked by the trial court."

The bench, while adjourning hearing on the petitions to October nine, said, "We will ensure that justice is done in the case."

Taking exception to the manner in which one after the other witnesses turned hostile in the case with the prosecution not doing anything about it, the Supreme Court warned the Gujarat government that the mistake committed before the trial court should not be repeated before the high court where the appeal is filed.

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