31 convicted, 63 acquitted for Godhra train burning (Roundup)

February 22nd, 2011 - 9:31 pm ICT by IANS  

Bharatiya Janata Party By R.K. Misra
Ahmedabad, Feb 22 (IANS) A fast track court here Tuesday convicted 31 people for hatching a conspiracy to burn the Sabarmati Express train in Godhra in Gujarat in 2002, killing 59 people and sparking one of the bloodiest communal riots in India. But it let off 63 people, including a key accused, for lack of evidence. The sentence will be pronounced Friday.

Additional Sessions Judge P.R. Patel delivered the verdict in the highly guarded complex of the Sabarmati Central Jail where the accused were lodged after the Feb 22, 2002 burning of a passenger coach of the train near the Godhra railway station.

Almost all those who died were Hindu activists returning from Ayodhya in Uttar Pradesh.

After 20 months of trial, they were held guilty of, among other things, murder, dacoity and robbery, arson and causing grievous hurt.

The court let off 63 others, including Maulvi Saeed Umarji, dubbed the prime accused. Many had rotted for years in prison pleading they were innocent.

His son Saeed Umarji said the judgment had strengthened his faith in the judiciary. “(But) the way he was kept in jail for eight years, it was a big injustice.”

Within hours, all 63 walked out of the prison, some looking visibly relieved. Some looked grim. They boarded two buses to be driven to Godhra, 160 km away, accompanied by policemen.

Those acquitted have to furnish a personal bond of Rs.10,000 and a surety of the same amount. They cannot leave India without permission.

Gujarat’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government hailed the verdict.

“We have all along maintained that the fire in the coach was not accidental but a pre-planned conspiracy. Now an impartial judicial process has confirmed our point of view,” said Jainarayan Vyas, Gujarat’s tourism minister and the government’s official spokesperson.

J.M. Panchal, the special public prosecutor, said clinching evidence for the conviction came from Gandhinagar’s Forensic Science Laboratory report, witnesses and circumstantial evidence.

Defence lawyer A.A. Hassan said the court had accepted the theory that arsonists entered the coach by cutting the vestibule, poured petrol inside and set it on fire.

According to him, there were 95 accused in the case, of whom 80 were in jail and 15 out on bail.

Many were unhappy with the verdict.

Activist lawyer Mukul Sinha said the ill-feeling generated among Muslims would continue because the judgment takes cognisance of the conspiracy theory without any evidence of it.

He added: “Moreover, if 63 are innocent, how can others from the same crowd be conspirators?”

BJP’s national spokesman Tarun Vijay said in New Delhi: “The verdict has exposed the malicious intentions of the central government and the pseudo secularists who tried to blame Hindus, who were victims, as the culprits.”

The Congress declined to comment. But it blamed Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi for triggering the state-wide communal riots that followed the Godhra tragedy.

“We don’t comment on a judgment of court, it is part of a legal process,” Congress spokesperson Jayanthi Natarajan said.

The authorities deployed a large number of security personnel around the prison. Journalists could reach the complex but not enter it.

It was on Feb 27, 2002 that the S-6 train coach was set on fire. In no time, leaping flames engulfed it, killing 59 people who could not escape. Most of them were linked to the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP).

Within days, violence erupted in Ahmedabad and other parts of Gujarat, killing more than 1,000 people in one of the worst outbreaks of sectarian violence in the country. Most victims were Muslims.

While an earlier probe by the Nanavati-Mehta probe panel ruled that the incident was a conspiracy, another inquiry by Justice U.C. Banerjee, set up by the railways, concluded that the incident was “accidental”.

Initially all the accused faced charges under the stringent Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA). These charges were revoked by the Gujarat High Court following the recommendations of the Central POTA Review Committee.

The trial began with the court framing charges against the accused in June 2009. During the trial, the court examined 254 prosecution witnesses.

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