(Bombay) - As the courts hear cases stemming from the anti-Muslim riots of March 2002, the authorities in Gujarat are intimidating rather than protecting witnesses who seek to bring the perpetrators of the violence to justice, Human Rights Watch said in a new report released today. The central government in New Delhi must take immediate steps to ensure the protection of the victims and witnesses of the riots and their advocates.
The 30-page report, Discouraging Dissent: Intimidation and Harassment of Witnesses, Human Rights Activists and Lawyers, documents how Hindu extremists have threatened and intimidated victims, witnesses and rights defenders who are fighting for the prosecution of those responsible for the killing and injury of Muslims during the riots. Instead of pursuing the perpetrators of violence, the state government—formed by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) under Chief Minister Narandra Modi—has nurtured a climate of fear. Officials have targeted those seeking justice with selective investigations by state tax authorities or the police.
“Two years after the Gujarat riots, witnesses are being threatened and sometimes even attacked,” said Brad Adams, executive director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia Division. “Not only has the Gujarat government failed to pursue those responsible for the riots, it is obstructing justice by its failure to protect witnesses.”
The violence in 2002 started with an attack in Godhra on a train carrying Hindus. Fifty-nine people died when a train carriage caught fire. In a retaliatory spree by Hindu mobs, hundreds of Muslims were slaughtered, tens of thousands were displaced, and their property was destroyed. Two years later, Muslims still live in 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While investigations in the Godhra case proceeded rapidly, with several indicted Muslims charged under the recently repealed Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA), investigations into cases related to the anti-Muslim riots that followed were deliberately slow. The lower courts dismissed many cases for lack of evidence after public prosecutors effectively acted as defense counsel or witnesses turned hostile after receiving threats.
Human Rights Watch praised recent decisions of the Indian Supreme Court to move some trials out of Gujarat to allow for a more impartial atmosphere and greater protection for witnesses, victims and lawyers. State governments should give adequate protection to witnesses and victims, order the appointment of a new public prosecutor, and order fresh police investigations into the case, Human Rights Watch said.
The Supreme Court said that members of the Gujarat state administration “were looking elsewhere when…innocent women and children were burning, and were probably deliberating how the perpetrators of the crime can be saved and protected.” The Court rebuked both the Gujarat High Court and the local justice system, stating, “Judicial criminal administration system must be kept clean and beyond the reach of whimsical political wills or agendas.”
To address these problems, Human Rights Watch urged the Indian government to set up a credible witness-protection program and provide more aid to the thousands of Muslims who are still living in squatter camps since being displaced by the riots.
“The behavior of authorities in Gujarat during the riots and afterwards have given Muslims in India good reason not to trust the police or justice system,” said Adams. “The new government in New Delhi has a chance now to show that it is serious about justice. It should instruct the Central Bureau of Intelligence to take charge of investigations, and it needs to provide protection to people facing attacks and threats.”
In previous reports on the 2002 Gujarat riots, Human Rights Watch has noted the failure of the court system to prosecute even known abusers and the authorities’ lack of political will to identify those who planned and executed the attacks.