On Thursday, the Supreme Court stayed the arrest of activists Teesta Setalvad and Javed Anand, and Gujarat riot survivors Tanvir Jafri, Salim Sandhi and Firoz Gulzar Pathan. The Gujarat High Court had hours earlier rejected their petition for anticipatory bail.

The five are named in a case against trustees of the Gulberg Society Museum Trust for allegedly embezzling crores of rupees for personal gain.

The trust was formed in 2007 to build a memorial to the victims of those killed during the 2002 riots by buying property in the Gulberg Society, where a mob slaughtered 69 people on February 28, 2002.

As land prices rose, the trust was no longer able to afford the property and with the permission of the donors diverted the funds to pay for legal aid for riot victims – including a case against the Gujarat government, including Narendra Modi, who was chief minister at the time.

In January 2014, a few former residents of the Gulberg Society, and also riots survivors, filed a complaint against the five trustees for embezzlement. The Gujarat police in their chargesheet accused Setalvad and Anand in particular of wining and dining on these funds, accusations that the two have refuted.

The embezzlement matter has not yet reached the court, but as soon as it was filed, the five approached first a sessions court, then the Gujarat High Court and now the Supreme Court for anticipatory bail and to dismiss the charges.

While this charge of embezzlement is not directly related to the riots, it is not the first time the Supreme Court has found itself asked to intervene in cases related to the Gujarat carnage.

Previous interventions

The initial police investigations into the riots were shoddy and resulted in cases failing to reach the courts. When it became clear that certain cases were not being tried fairly in Gujarat, the Supreme Court, on being approached by the National Human Rights Commission and activists, moved two cases out of the state altogether.

“The Gujarat criminal justice system did not respond properly after the riots,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director of Human Rights Watch. “While those accused of the attack on the Sabarmati Express [in Godhra] were arrested, police were simply not registering complaints or investigating the attacks on Muslims. A number of cases were closed. In others, the police said that suspects were absconding even as they gave interviews to journalists. There was no attempt to ensure witness protection.”

What was different between the Gujarat cases and previous communal riots was the presence of the National Human Rights Commission and an independent media that constantly highlighted the cases to bring them to justice, she said.

Harsh Mander, a former IAS officer who was witness to the riots and later actively pursued cases against rioters laid the blame at the judicial system.

“The Supreme Court intervened because the Gujarat High Court was ineffective,” he said. “Two thousand of 4,000 cases were closed without trial. The Supreme Court got many of those cases reopened because they were tried reluctantly and not in full spirit.”

But Mander also pointed out that the entire judiciary was not at fault.

“You have extraordinary judges like Jyostnaben Yagnik, the magistrate who tried the Ishrat Jahan case,” he said. “There are good upright individuals, but overall, the system is not all right.”

These are the two cases that without the Supreme Court would not have received justice.

Best Bakery

On March 1, 2002, at the height of the riots, a mob of 21 people attacked and burned down the Best Bakery in Vadodara, where 14 people were hiding. The police filed a case only in June 2002 and in 2003, a fast track court acquitted all the accused, citing a shoddy investigation. This verdict was then upheld by the Gujarat High Court.

While the police claimed that the accused were on the run, they were able to intimidate Zahira Sheikh, the key witness in the case. The Supreme Court intervened in 2004, after Sheikh kept changing her testimony. The court ordered a retrial, changed the public prosecutor and moved the case to Maharashtra.

A trial court in Mumbai sentenced nine of the 21 accused to life imprisonment in 2006. That year, the Supreme Court also convicted Sheikh of perjury and sentenced her to a year in jail. In 2012, the Bombay High Court acquitted five of those nine as witnesses failed to identify them, but upheld the sentences of the remaining four.

Bilkis Banu

On March 3, 2002, 19-year-old Bilkis Banu was travelling with her family members in a truck, attempting to find refuge in Randhikpur village in Dohad. Thirty-five armed people surrounded the truck and murdered 14 of Bilkis Banu’s family members, including her two-year-old daughter Saleha. They then raped Banu and left her for dead.

Banu, however, survived.

Another fast track court in Limkheda closed the case on March 25, 2003. Banu then approached the National Human Rights Commission, who went to the Supreme Court with the case. In December 2003, the Supreme Court directed the Central Bureau of Investigation to take over the investigation. Within a month, the CBI had arrested 12 people. In July, after receiving threats to her life, Banu asked for the case to be transferred outside Gujarat.

The Supreme Court shifted the case to Maharashtra, where a sessions court in Mumbai convicted 13 of the 20 accused in 2008.