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Advani: Protect Human Rights Defenders
(September 05, 2003)

Dear Deputy Prime Minister Shri L.K. Advani,

We write to express our serious concern about the safety of three human rights defenders facing escalating intimidation because they have tried to ensure accountability for the communal violence in Gujarat. Teesta Setalvad, Rais Khan Azeezkhan Pathan, and Suhel Tirmizi have faced increasing verbal and physical threats in response to their efforts to protect witnesses and preserve evidence about the massacres that took place in Gujarat in February and March 2002.

As members of the civil-society organization Citizens for Justice and Peace, the three defenders have helped document and expose the participation of the police and other government officials during the anti-Muslim violence in Gujarat. They have also assisted the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) in its inquiry into the massacres, in particular the so-called "Best Bakery" case. As you are aware, in that incident fourteen people were set on fire and killed in a bakery in Vadodara, Gujarat at the height of the violence.

In the ensuing litigation, a Gujarat state court acquitted twenty-one people accused of the killings after witnesses withdrew statements they had given to the police identifying the attackers. A prime witness in the case, Zahira Sheikh, has detailed how she was forced to change her testimony as a result of threats against her during the trial. She spoke before the NHRC on July 11, 2003, accompanied by Teesta Setalvad. Following Sheikh's testimony, the NHRC filed a special petition before the Supreme Court asking for a retrial of the Best Bakery case outside of Gujarat, and for a transfer of nine other key cases arising from the massacres to venues outside Gujarat.

Setalvad, Pathan, and Tirmizi have provided protection and legal assistance to Sheikh and her family members, including moving them to a secure location in Mumbai. In response, they have received a number of threats by telephone from anonymous callers threatening their lives if they continue their work. On August 29, Pathan was surrounded and physically threatened by a group of Hindu nationalist supporters while he was escorting witnesses of the Gulbarg Society massacre to a hearing of the Commission of Inquiry into the violence in Gujarat.

The three human rights defenders requested police protection from the chief secretary, the director general of police, and the commissioner of police in Ahmedabad, on August 20. To date, there has been no response from the Gujarat government. On September 1 the three human rights defenders filed an application for protection before the Supreme Court of India.

We call on the Indian government to:

o Immediately provide proper and adequate protection to Teesta Setalvad, Rais Khan Azeezkhan Pathan, and Suhel Tirmizi;

o Ensure a retrial of the Best Bakery case outside Gujarat and provide adequate protection for witnesses in the case;

o Direct federal authorities to take over cases of serious, large-scale human rights violations where the state government has hampered investigations, including the Godhra, Naroda Patia, and Gulbarg Society massacre cases.

The increasingly strident tone of those attempting to obstruct the course of justice in Gujarat requires an immediate and strong response from the Indian government. We look forward to your leadership on this important matter.

Yours sincerely,

Brad Adams
Executive Director
Asia Division
Human Rights Watch

Shri Narendra Modi
Chief Minister of Gujarat

Justice A.S. Anand
National Human Rights Commission