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Last Updated: Friday, 24 February 2006, 12:46 GMT
Landmark judgement raises hope

By Sanjoy Majumder
BBC News, Delhi

Riots in Ahmedabad in 2002
The police were accused of doing little to prevent the violence
The conviction of nine people in what has come to be known in India as the Best Bakery case brings to an end one of the country's most controversial and high profile trials.

Many see it as a landmark judgement and a vindication of India's much maligned justice system.

In short, the system stood accused of failing Muslims in the state of Gujarat after more than 1,000 people, most of them Muslims, were killed in rioting by Hindu mobs.

"Justice has been done," says a former chief justice of India's Supreme Court, VN Khare, who ordered a retrial in the Best Bakery case in 2004 after a court acquitted all 21 accused.

Rights campaigners who have pushed for justice to be delivered to the riot victims are relieved that their efforts have finally paid off.

"The retrial has been justified and vindicated," Teesta Setalvad of the Citizens for Justice and Peace told journalists.

Frenzied killing

Fourteen people, including 12 Muslims, died in the arson attack on a bakery in the city of Baroda, in Gujarat.

I found there was no will to prosecute the guilty
Former Chief Justice VN Khare
Judge who ordered retrial
It was part of the infamous 2002 riots, some of the worst since India's bloody partition in 1947.

Hindu mobs in cities, towns and villages in Gujarat went on the rampage, attacking Muslims, destroying and looting their property and desecrating their places of worship.

The rioting started after a Muslim mob was reported to have attacked a train carrying Hindu pilgrims. Nearly 60 Hindus died when the train caught fire.

An indifferent, some would say hostile, police and state administration, led by the Hindu-nationalist BJP party, failed to take steps to prevent the violence from taking place.

Acquittals

But what followed raised serious questions about the legal justice system in the world's largest and proudest democracy.

Gujarat riot
More than 1,000 people, mostly Muslims, died in the 2002 riots

Cases were registered against "unnamed" persons, few were arrested and there were no mass scale resignations of senior officials.

Several hasty trials later, some 2,000 cases were closed citing lack of evidence.

Others, including the Best Bakery case, led to acquittals because the prosecution failed to build up a strong case.

All that changed in 2004 when the country's Supreme Court, faced with mounting public pressure from human rights groups and riot victims, hauled up the Gujarat state government for doing little to punish the guilty.

It forced several cases to be reopened and in some instances - including the Best Bakery case - ordered a retrial.

'No will to prosecute'

Sixteen months later, the special court set up by the Supreme Court has now handed out its verdict despite having to cope with witnesses retracting their evidence.

Justice Khare says the verdict shows that there was nothing wrong with the justice system but that the Gujarat state authorities had failed in their duties.

"I found there was no will to prosecute the guilty. There was nothing wrong with the system but the state did not discharge its function," he told the BBC News website.

This has led to some hope that we will also receive justice
Syed Khan, riot victim
Significantly, the Supreme Court had ordered that the retrial should be held outside Gujarat state to ensure a fair trial.

"It is because of this that people were able to depose without fear. They may not have spoken out if the trial had been held in Gujarat," Mr Khare says.

Hope

The Best Bakery case is only one of more than one thousand that are still to be heard.

But many riot victims have taken heart from the judgement and hope that their cases will also get a fair hearing and the guilty punished.

"This has led to some hope that we will also receive justice," says Syed Khan whose relatives were among 39 people who were killed in a residential complex in Ahmedabad known as the Gulbarg Society.

"It is clear that the Gujarat police did not investigate the case properly," he told the BBC.

Few people have been convicted over the riots in which more than 1,000 people died, mostly Muslims.

But rights campaigners and riot victims are hoping the Best Bakery sparks off a trend.


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