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Last Updated: Wednesday, 22 December, 2004, 17:36 GMT
Politician denies bribing witness
Tehelka video
Madhu Srivastava denies the voice in the video is his
An Indian politician has denied allegations by a weekly newspaper that he bribed a key witness in a high-profile riot case.

The newspaper, Tehelka, aired a secretly-filmed video in which the politician is alleged to have paid 1.8m rupees ($41,000) to the witness.

But the politician, Madhu Srivastava, says the voice on the video is not his and has been doctored.

Zahira Sheikh is the key witness in the Best Bakery Gujarat riot case.

She has also denied having received any payment from Mr Srivastava.

The alleged payments relate to the collapse of the first trial in the Best Bakery case in May 2003.

I have never met Zahira Sheikh. The picture is mine but the voice is not
Madhu Srivastava

All the accused were acquitted after Ms Sheikh, who was the prosecution's main witness, retracted her evidence.

Human rights campaigners see the Best Bakery trial as a test case in the pursuit of justice following the 2002 Gujarat riots.

Twelve Muslims and two others were burnt to death when the bakery was attacked, allegedly by a Hindu mob.

Official figures say more than 1,000 people, most of them Muslims, died in the riots.

India's Supreme Court has been scathing about the justice system in Gujarat following the riots.

Ms Sheikh subsequently said she retracted her evidence because she had been threatened with her life by local Hindu politicians of Gujarat's governing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

That led the Supreme Court to order a retrial outside Gujarat, in the city of Mumbai (Bombay).

But then the retrial was thrown into confusion last month when she again changed her stand, telling reporters that a human rights group, Citizens for Justice and Peace, had threatened her.

On Tuesday, while testifying in the retrial of 17 men accused of the bakery attack, she said she did not recognise any of them.

In earlier statements to the police she had named them as being responsible for the killings.

On Wednesday, the judge in the Mumbai retrial severely reprimanded her for reversing her testimony.

'Pack of lies'

Tehelka says its sting operation raises critical questions about India's justice system.

Zahira Sheikh (Photo Sabrang Communications)
Zahira Sheikh is a key witness to the Best Bakery attack

But a leading criminal lawyer, Dipesh Mehta, says the video is not admissible in a court of law.

At a press conference in the Indian capital, Delhi, Tehelka aired grainy video footage which it said had been shot by a spy cam.

The footage showed Madhu Srivastava, who belongs to the Hindu nationalist BJP in Gujarat, and a Congress Party politician describing how the money was paid to Zahira Sheikh.

"This is completely false and a pack of lies," Mr Srivastava told the BBC.

"I have never met Zahira Sheikh. The picture is mine but the voice is not."

Zahira Sheikh herself was asked about the allegations in court on Wednesday: "Nobody gives anything to anyone," she said.

Later she told journalists: "I have never taken money and I have never demanded money from anyone. I do not know Madhu Srivastava," the AFP news agency reports.

Twelve Muslims were burned alive in Baroda's Best Bakery Photo Sabrang Communications)
The Muslims were burned alive in Baroda's Best Bakery

The Best Bakery case is often cited by human rights groups as evidence that riot victims have gained little justice.

"Zahira's flip flops have been playing havoc with the progress of the trial, undermining the process of justice," Tehelka says.

The 2002 riots left a deep scar on the Muslim minority in Gujarat.

Madhu Srivastava says he is seeking advice on his next steps.


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