Muslim witnesses unprotected in Gujarat

For Muslims brave enough to testify in cases related to last year’s sectarian riots in the western Indian state of Gujarat, police protection has remained a distant hope despite court orders.

Gujarati slums, torn apart by sectarian rioting
Gujarati slums, torn apart by sectarian rioting

Instead of providing the 1000-odd Muslims round-the-clock security, only a few hours protection is given by policemen who often pester their reluctant hosts for food, snacks and beverages, witnesses said.

“It seems that the police just does not care about the Supreme Court order. They come only for a few hours and ask us to call if we need them,” said Alam Khan Anwar Khan Pathan, a witness in a case in which 40 people were killed.

Pathan and his wife saw seven members of their family being killed by a Hindu mob during the incident, but fear for their own lives kept him from giving evidence before a court that heard the case on 28 and 29 August.

“My wife asked me not to go before the judges as that could have got us into trouble. But if I am provided adequate security, I may depose on the next hearing date on 13 October,” said Pathan.

Intimidated witness

In June, a key witness, Zaheera Shaikh, 17, changed her court testimony and lied out of fear for her life in a case in which 12 Muslims were burnt alive by a Hindu mob in a bakery furnace in Gujarat’s Vadodra town.

The 21 people being tried in the case were acquitted.

India’s Supreme Court on Friday again ordered Gujarat’s Hindu nationalist-led government to extend full protection to Shaikh, who fled the state.

“We will act if the state keeps silent

India’s Supreme Court

When it became clear that the National Human Rights Commission and Shaikh were not going to let the case fizzle out, the Gujarat government hastily lodged an appeal in the state High Court, challenging the acquittals.

“It appears to us that it (the government appeal) is an eyewash. It is just an eyewash and nothing else. We will not be silent spectators. We will act if the state keeps silent,” the Supreme Court said.

It suggested the Gujarat government think of appointing an independent prosecuting agency in the case and other instances of riots in order to seek swift justice.

Tea and snacks

Another witness, Fakir Muhammad Sayyed, 65, complained about the policemen providing protection.

“Four members of my family have been given police protection, but it is a big joke. The police come at whatever time that suits them. They ask us to prepare food for them and serve tea and snacks,” he said.

One of the witnesses, Firoze Gulzar Muhammad, who complained about the police behaviour, quickly ran into a bureaucratic wall.

The riots in Gujarat erupted in February 2002 after a mob, believed to be Muslims, torched a train carrying Hindus, killing 59 of them.

“When I protested against their whimsical timings, they told me ‘don’t teach us the law’ and when I tried to complain at the police station, they asked me to go to the headquarters where I was told that they were not responsible for this matter,” said Mohammad.

“Now, I don’t know where to complain,” he said.

No fair trial

The Muslim witnesses said the prevailing atmosphere would make it difficult for them to get justice.

“We do not feel that the atmosphere in Gujarat is conducive for free and fair trial,” said Ishak Khan Jahangir.

Dilawar Sikandar Shaikh said the police fooled him and many other witnesses into signing a document saying they did not need protection.

“The police came to us after midnight and took our signature on a form which had ‘yes’ and ‘no’ written in a box. We did not know what it was,” said Shaikh.

“We have now come to know it was a form where we had to state whether we needed security or not. They tick marked ‘no’ for us,” he added.

Rais Khan, an activist with the Citizens for Peace and Justice group, said more than 20 witnesses were planning to submit an application to the Supreme Court seeking protection

The Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, which rules Gujarat and heads India’s federal coalition, has been accused by rights groups of turning a blind eye to the sectarian violence that raged for months and claimed the lives of some 2000 people, mostly Muslims.

The riots in Gujarat erupted in February 2002 after a mob, believed to be Muslims, torched a train carrying Hindus, killing 59 of them.

Source : AFP

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