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February 2, 2005

India Justice, the victim – Gujarat state fails to protect women from violence

Filed under: Politics — admin @ 5:04 pm

India Justice, the victim – Gujarat state fails to protect women from violence
In February 2002, violence erupted in the state of Gujarat in western India. Some 2000 people, mostly Muslims, were killed and many others were injured and forcibly evicted from their homes and businesses over the course of the following weeks. Violence against women and girls was a key feature of the violence. Scores of Muslim women and girls were sexually violated – raped, gang-raped or mutilated. Many saw their family members killed and their homes and businesses destroyed. After these traumatizing events many women victims were left to care for their family’s survival, often in makeshift relief camps with inadequate support, conditions and reparations. Few perpetrators were convicted and victims’ attempts to obtain legal redress have been largely frustrated.

The Indian state of Gujarat has a history of communal violence whereby violence was perpetrated by both Hindus and Muslims.(1) While the violence in 2002 followed a fire in a train which killed 59 Hindus, it cannot be likened to earlier patterns of communal violence. The violence that ensued in the period from late February to May 2002 almost exclusively involved Muslims suffering from targeted violence perpetrated by organized right wing Hindu mobs.(2) The violence was grounded in the widespread ideology of Hindutva which sees India as a nation of Hindus. (For details of this ideology see section 4 and 6.)

By looking primarily at the cases of two women victims – Bilqis Yakoob Rasool and Zahira Sheikh, this report demonstrates a range of failures of the state to fulfil the standard of due diligence under national and international obligation to prevent grave human rights abuses perpetrated against women, protect victims and bring the perpetrators of these crimes to justice. Failures are identified at all levels: the police, trial court, high court, the state government and central government.

In the first case, Zahira Sheikh, a 19-year-old woman witnessed the burning down of her family’s business, the Best Bakery in Vadodara, by a violent Hindu mob. During the night of 1 March 2002, 14 people, including several women and children, were killed in the incident. Zahira made a complaint to the police. The trial of the Best Bakery case began in February 2003. On 27 June 2003, the trial court acquitted all 21 accused after 37 of the 73 witnesses, including Zahira, had withdrawn their statements in court. Zahira and her mother Sherunissa days later publicly declared that they had “”trembled with fear”” in court as they had been threatened with harsh consequences by associates of the accused if they did not withdraw their eye-witness accounts. The NHRC petitioned the Supreme Court stating that the circumstances of the acquittal violated the victims’ right to a fair trial and sought re-investigation and retrial of the case outside Gujarat. The Gujarat High Court, hearing the appeal of the Gujarat government against the trial court judgment, in December 2003 confirmed the trial court’s acquittal. Zahira, in January 2004, filed an appeal against the Gujarat High Court judgment in the Supreme Court. On 12 April 2004, the apex court overruled the High Court judgment and ordered the retrial of the Best Bakery case in Maharashtra. It severely criticized the Gujarat government and the state judiciary for their failings. The retrial began in Mumbai in October 2004. On the day before Zahira Sheikh was to appear in court on 4 November 2004, she publicly withdrew her previous statements, claiming that members of the organisation which had protected her and her family and assisted her in filing her petition in the Supreme Court, had coerced her into accusing people unconnected with the killing of her relatives. The circumstances of this reversal are not at present clear. (For details see the section on witness protection and the appendix.)

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