Ahmedabad, Feb 22 (IANS) Nine long years later, a court Tuesday convicted 31 people but acquitted 63 for the 2002 burning of the Sabarmati Express in Godhra town in Gujarat that killed 59 people and triggered one of the worst communal riots in Indian history.
Additional Sessions Judge P.R. Patel delivered the verdict within the Sabarmati Central Jail, accusing the 31 of hatching a conspiracy to set ablaze a passenger coach in Godhra town Feb 27, killing mostly Hindu activists returning to Gujarat from Ayodhya in Uttar Pradesh.
After 20 months of trial, the 31 were held guilty of, among other things, murder, dacoity and robbery, arson and causing grievous hurt. They were also charged with violating the Bombay Police Act and Indian Railway Act.
“The sentence will be announced Feb 25,” said J.M. Panchal, the special public prosecutor. He said he was satisfied. “It is a judicial verdict and everybody must respect it.”
But the judge let off 63 others, including Maulvi Saeed Umarji, who had been dubbed the prime accused. Many of them had rotted for years in prison pleading they were innocent.
The clinching evidence, a lawyer said, came from the forensic centre in Gandhinagar which shot down suggestions that the train burning had been an accident.
The authorities deployed a large number of security personnel around the prison. Family members of the prisoners were denied access to the complex. Even journalists could reach the complex but could not enter it.
Maulvi’s son Saeed Umarji said the judgment has strengthened his faith in the judiciary.
“The way he was kept in jail for eight years, it was big injustice,” he said. “Our confidence in the judiciary has been strengthened by the special court’s judgment.”
But Supreme Court lawyer and activist Prashant Bhushan was furious.
“It is a travesty of justice,” Bhushan told IANS in New Delhi. “I understand most of the 63 people let off today were denied bail and spent all these years behind the bars.
“It is a sad commentary on the delays of the judicial system that such a long wait had to be made for a verdict,” he added.
It all happened Feb 27, 2002, when an enraged mob of 900 to 1,000 ran after and surrounded the S-6 train coach after forcing it to halt near the railway station in Godhra town.
In no time, leaping flames engulfed the coach, claiming the lives of 59 screaming 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.
An earlier inquiry by the railway ministry had said the blaze was accidental. That ruling was contested by the VHP and others who insisted that the coach was deliberately set on fire.
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) welcomed the ruling.
“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,” BJP spokesman and Rajya Sabha MP Tarun Vijay said in New Delhi.
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.
In the final count, there were 95 accused in the case, of whom 80 are lodged in the Sabarmati jail and 15 got bail.
Initially, all the accused faced charges under the stringent Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA).
However, POTA 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.