(New York) - The Indian government must protect three activists harassed and intimidated for their efforts to protect witnesses to last year's massacres in Gujarat, Human Rights Watch wrote in a letter to the Indian government today.
"The Indian government must demonstrate that it's on the side of justice, not those who organized this massacre," said Brad Adams, executive director of the Asia Division of Human Rights Watch. "These three activists are trying to stand up to a state government that has done little to bring about accountability for thousands of victims and now they themselves are targets."
Teesta Setalvad, Rais Khan Azeezkhan Pathan and Suhel Tirmizi have received anonymous telephone calls threatening their lives if they continue their work. On August 29, Pathan was threatened by a group of Hindu nationalists as he escorted witnesses to an official inquiry into the massacres.
The communal violence in Gujarat began on February 27, 2002, over allegations that a Muslim mob in the town of Godhra had attacked and set fire to two carriages of a train carrying Hindu activists. Fifty-eight people were killed.
Over the next three days, a retaliatory killing spree by Hindus left hundreds dead and tens of thousands homeless in Gujarat. A Human Rights Watch report on the violence (We Have No Orders to Save You) concluded that Gujarat state officials were directly involved in the killings and engaged in a massive cover-up.
A follow-up report by Human Rights Watch (Compounding Injustice: The Government's Failure to Redress Massacres in Gujarat), published in July 2003, concluded that the massacre's ringleaders were still at large. Human Rights Watch has asked the Indian federal government to take over investigations in cases where the state government has hampered litigation.
Although the Indian government initially boasted of thousands of arrests following the attacks, most of those arrested have since been acquitted, released on bail with no further action taken, or simply let go. Even when cases have reached trial, Muslim victims faced biased prosecutors and judges, harassment and intimidation. In one case, 14 people were set on fire and killed in the Best Bakery in Vadodara, Gujarat. A Gujarat state court acquitted 21 people accused of the killings after witnesses withdrew statements they had given to the police identifying the attackers.
A prime witness in that case, Zahira Sheikh, told India's National Human Rights Commission she was forced to change her testimony as a result of threats against her during the trial. 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.
On August 20, the three human rights defenders requested police protection from Gujarat's chief secretary and director general of police and the police commissioner of Ahmedabad. There has been no response to date. The defenders also filed an application for protection before the Supreme Court of India on September 1.
In the letter, addressed to Deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani, Human Rights Watch called 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.