(New York) -- The Indian government should promptly implement the Supreme Court's order to create an effective witness-protection program and conduct impartial investigations to determine who was responsible for the 2002 Gujarat riots, Human Rights Watch said today. Lawyers and human rights activists involved in prosecutions should also receive government protection.

In a landmark ruling, the Supreme Court on Monday overturned a High Court verdict in the Best Bakery case of communal violence, in which 21 defendants had been acquitted for burning 14 people to death after fearful witnesses recanted earlier allegations. By transferring the case to a more neutral venue in neighboring Maharashtra state, the Supreme Court rebuked both the Gujarat High Court and the local justice system, stating that the, "Judicial criminal administration system must be kept clean and beyond the reach of whimsical political wills or agendas."

The Supreme Court directed the state governments of Gujarat and Maharashtra to give adequate protection to witnesses and victims, ordered the appointment of a new public prosecutor, and ordered fresh police investigations into the case.

"The Supreme Court order affirms what victims and their lawyers have been saying all along. Gujarat's police and justice system are protecting the guilty and are undermining activists, lawyers and even the National Human Rights Commission," said Brad Adams, executive director of Human Rights Watch's Asia Division. "For justice to be done for victims of the Gujarat riots, impartial investigations have to be conducted and witnesses have to be protected so they can testify without fear."

In previous reportson the 2002 Gujarat riots Human Rights Watch has identified the failure to prosecute even known abusers and a lack of political will, both in Gujarat state and at the national level, to identify those who planned the attacks. In many cases, charges have been dropped or dismissed by lower courts in a failure of due process.

In the trial of the Best Bakery defendants, most of the key witnesses turned hostile and the 21 accused were acquitted on June 27, 2003. But one eyewitness, Zahira Sheikh, who watched as many members of her family were killed, revealed on July 7, 2003, that she and other witnesses were forced to change their testimony after receiving threats from a local legislator of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Based on Zahira's accusation, the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) petitioned the Supreme Court to move key trials out of Gujarat. That appeal is still pending.

Meanwhile, after initially challenging the NHRC intervention, the Gujarat state government appealed the Best Bakery case to the state High Court. The High Court not only upheld the acquittal, but also attacked human rights activists, lawyers and the NHRC in incendiary comments in its written decision, causing fear among the small community of activists involved in the case. These comments have now been expunged from the court record by yesterday's Supreme Court decision.

"It's unfortunate that India had to wait for two years to begin a serious process of delivering justice to victims in the Gujarat riot cases," said Adams. "As national elections approach, it's time for both the Gujarat government and the federal government in New Delhi to show that justice knows no religion and will be administered in an even-handed way."

Although senior BJP leaders, including Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, have expressed regret for the Gujarat riots in public statements during the current election campaign, the BJP has made no move to reprimand the party's Gujarat Chief Minister, Narendra Modi, for his failure to protect Muslims during the riots or to ensure that justice was done. The federal government has taken no apparent action to stop the campaign of incitement against Muslims and Christians by leaders of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, including Pravin Togadia, who is considered responsible for his organization's activities in Gujarat.

In addition, Human Rights Watch called on other national parties, including the Congress Party, to make clear that it will not tolerate violence or incitement to violence by Hindu extremists. Human Rights Watch is particularly concerned about recent activities such as the distribution of tridents by extremist groups in Orissa, Rajastan and Chattisgarh and the lack of public response by both state and federal governments.

"In order to prevent future tragedies like the Gujarat riots, it's time for the Indian government to take preemptive police action and to launch a public-awareness campaign against religious extremism," said Adams. "If the government fails to take such precautions now and future tragedies unfold, it will bear at least some of the responsibility."

The 2002 riots in Gujarat followed an attack by Muslims on a train in Godhra carrying Hindu activists, killing at least 58 people. In a retaliatory killing spree by Hindus, often led by activists of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and the Bajrang Dal-allies of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party--hundreds of Muslims were slaughtered, tens of thousands were displaced, and their property was destroyed. Two years later, many Muslim families have returned to their homes but live in constant fear because their attackers remain free and continue to make threats, particularly against those involved in prosecutions.

While investigations in the Godhra case proceeded rapidly, with several indicted Muslims charged under the Prevention of Terrorism Act, investigations into cases registered in the violence that followed have been slow. Some clear cases were not brought to trial, and others have been dismissed by the lower courts for lack of evidence after public prosecutors effectively acted as defense counsel or witnesses turned hostile after receiving threats.