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Last Updated: Friday, 24 February 2006, 07:42 GMT
Life sentences in India riot case
Best Bakery after attack (Photo Sabrang Communications)
Fourteen people were killed in the attack on the bakery

A court in India has sentenced nine people to life imprisonment in a high-profile case related to the 2002 riots in the western state of Gujarat.

Twelve Muslims and two others were burned to death when the Best Bakery was attacked by a Hindu mob.

The riots had been sparked by the death of 59 Hindus after a Muslim mob allegedly attacked a train in Godhra.

More than 1,000 people, mainly Muslims, were killed in the riots. Human rights groups put the death toll much higher.

A special court conducting a retrial found the nine guilty of killing 14 people during the arson attack on the bakery. They had been acquitted in an earlier trial.

The court acquitted eight of the 21 people accused in the attack. Warrants have been issued for the arrest of four others who remain at large.

Retrial

The BBC's Nick Bryant in Delhi says the Best Bakery has come to symbolise the failure of the Indian justice system following the Gujarat riots in 2002.

This verdict will be a signal to others
Manjula Rao, special prosecutor

All the accused in the case had been acquitted in the original trial after the prosecution's main witness Zahira Sheikh retracted her evidence.

Ms Sheikh said she had retracted her testimony because she had been threatened by local politicians.

That led the Supreme Court to order a retrial in the case in neighbouring Maharashtra state.

Perjury

Later a committee set up by India's Supreme Court found that Ms Sheikh had lied in her testimony. The committee said it appeared she had been bribed to change her story.

The court on Friday found Ms Sheikh and her family guilty of perjury and issued a show-cause notice to them asking them to explain why they turned hostile witnesses.

Zahira Sheikh
Zahira Sheikh has been found guilty of perjury

"I am very satisfied, specially with the notices issued to Zahira Sheikh and her family. I had prayed that they be taken to task for turning hostile in the case. This verdict will be a signal to others," Manjula Rao, special prosecutor appointed by the Supreme Court told the BBC.

A legal expert Majeed Memon welcomed the judgement.

"It is belated justice. Still it is firm and assertive justice in India for the minorities," he said.

Eyewitnesses testified that a Hindu mob attacked the bakery with swords and petrol bombs and burned it down. As the fire spread, it trapped those inside and killed them.

Gujarat police and local authorities have been heavily criticised for failing to come to the help of victims during the violence, which was among the worst in India since partition in 1947.

The Sabarmati Express was carrying Hindu pilgrims returning from the disputed holy site at Ayodhya when it was attacked allegedly by a Muslim mob.

How the blaze in which the pilgrims and their families died started is not clear.

An interim inquiry conducted by the rail ministry concluded that the fire was an accident, although this view is being challenged by the main opposition BJP.





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