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Last Updated: Wednesday, 20 September 2006, 16:33 GMT 17:33 UK
Trial asks questions of Indian justice
By Zubair Ahmed
BBC News, Mumbai

Scene of Mumbai blasts, 1993 (Photo: Fawzan Husain)
More than 250 people were killed in the Mumbai bombings

For victims and survivors of India's first-ever serial bomb blasts in 1993 there is relief that verdicts are finally being passed.

But around the country there are thousands of other victims, especially of religious riots, who are still awaiting justice.

Theirs are also high-profile cases and some of them have gone on for much longer than the Mumbai (Bombay) trial - yet no verdicts seem in sight.

Many minority Muslims and Sikhs feel frustrated and say the delays are evidence of institutionalised bias against them.

Disbelief

The first convictions over the Mumbai bombings, which killed 257 people and injured more than 700, were welcomed all over India, but not in the financial capital's predominantly Muslim area of Mahim.

We don't believe they were involved in the blasts
Abida Siddiqui,
Memon's neighbour

This is where the Memon family lived, four of whose members were found guilty. Three others were acquitted after years in prison.

There was disbelief among the family's immediate neighbours, who had been glued to their television set waiting for the judgements.

"Even if the court has passed a guilty verdict against the Memons, we don't believe they were involved in the blasts. They were a helpful, generous family," said Abida Siddiqui, wiping her tears.

Hindus at Babri Mosque in 1992
The destruction of the Babri mosque sparked killing across India

Her sister-in-law, Hurriyat Siddiqui, wanted to know when the judgment against those who were involved in the riots before the blasts would come.

The Mumbai attacks were allegedly ordered by the Muslim-dominated underworld in retaliation for Hindu-Muslim riots which followed the demolition of the 16th century Babri mosque in the northern city of Ayodhya.

At least 2,000 people were killed in violence nationwide.

The worst rioting was in Mumbai where the majority of the dead were Muslims, killed by Hindu mobs. Police were accused of failing to take action to protect them.

A number of senior Hindu nationalist politicians were charged with inciting violence in Ayodhya, but no one has been convicted.

The Srikrishna inquiry commission set up into the riots in Mumbai clearly identified the culprits. But all are free men.

'Apathy'

Sikhs, too, say they have been denied justice.

The families of more than 3,000 Sikhs, who were massacred in Delhi following the assassination of former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards, have been waiting for justice for 22 long years.

Sikh widows
Relatives of the victims of the anti-Sikh riots feel badly let down

Again, commissions of inquiry (and there have been nine in all) have named people, including politicians, suspected of leading the attackers, but no one has so far been punished by the courts.

In almost all the cases, a lack of political will appears to be the main reason for taking no action.

Following the reports submitted by the Nanavati commission, the ninth and last inquiry into the anti-Sikh riots, the governing Congress party merely asked the state governments concerned to take action against the persons involved in the rioting, even though some of those named in the investigation were Congress leaders.

But the official apathy, or bias as some might say, seems to cut across party lines.

Muslims in Mumbai are frustrated by what they say is the indifference of successive governments to the Srikrishna commission's findings.

The report was submitted during the right-wing Shiv Sena-BJP rule, but it was never accepted. Things are no further forward under the new Congress state government.

The list of such high-profile cases is endless.

Take for example, the case of Hashimpura in Meerut in northern India, where more than 40 Muslims were brutally killed 19 years ago.

Cases against 19 police officers were registered, but the trial was getting nowhere until the Supreme Court ordered it to be transferred to Delhi last month. Meanwhile, the accused officers are still in their jobs.

People can, of course, hire their own lawyers and bring private prosecutions if they so choose, but most victims in riots are poor and illiterate and cannot afford the legal fees over years and years.

'Punish the guilty'

So, who's at fault? Analysts say prosecutors often do not pursue cases professionally and political will is lacking across the board.

Human rights campaigners see a clear pattern in these delays, especially in cases where police themselves are accused of murder

Prosecution lawyers are appointed by the government of the day - so, in effect, the stronger the will of the government the greater the chances of the prosecutions being brought.

Take the case of the Bhagalpur riots of 1989 in Bihar state. When the report was submitted the chief minister at the time, Laloo Prasad Yadav, promised to take action against the guilty.

In one of the cases, a local court did hand life sentences to 14 men, but 22 others were let off due to insufficient evidence.

Now the current chief minister, Nitish Kumar, has ordered the retrial of 27 cases relating to the Bhagalpur riots.

Human rights campaigners see a clear pattern in these delays, especially in cases where police themselves are accused of murder.

For example, in the Hashimpura case, all 19 policemen have been named as accused but successive Uttar Pradesh governments have failed to take action against them.

These delays have no doubt caused a great deal of resentment against the government among India's minority communities.

"Is this not government bias against us? Is it not institutionalised?" ask the Memon family's neighbours.

They say the best way to answer the allegations of bias would be to bring high-profile cases to trial "and punish the guilty fast".




SEE ALSO
Long wait for Mumbai blasts justice
13 Sep 06 |  South Asia
In pictures: 1993 Mumbai blasts
12 Sep 06 |  In Pictures
Justice delayed, justice denied
11 Aug 05 |  South Asia
Advani charged with Ayodhya riots
28 Jul 05 |  South Asia
Indian politician cleared over riots
23 Dec 02 |  South Asia

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