Ahmedabad, March 1 (IANS) A special court Tuesday sent to the gallows 11 people and gave life imprisonment to 20 others for the February 2002 burning of a train coach in Gujarat’s Godhra town that killed 59 radical Hindu activists and triggered a communal frenzy claiming 1,000 lives in the state.
The sentence was pronounced by special judge P.R. Patel in the special court within the high-security Sabarmati prison here.
The 20 accused have to undergo life imprisonment for 20 years, excluding the period they have already spent in jail.
The 31 people were convicted Feb 22 and held guilty of conspiring and setting on fire the S-6 coach of the Sabarmati Express near the Godhra railway station Feb 27, 2002.
The train, carrying many ‘karsevaks’ (Hindu volunteers), was on its way back from Uttar Pradesh’s temple town Ayodhya.
The 31 men were held guilty of various crimes including murder, attempt to murder, dacoity, robbery and arson.
The court had acquitted 63 others, including alleged mastermind Maulvi Umarji.
Those sentenced to death are Ismail Sujela alias Haji Bilal, Razak Kurkur, Ramzani Binyamin Behra, Jabbir Binyamin Behra, Mehboob Hassan alias Latiko, Siraj Bala, Irfan Kalandar, Irfan Patadia, Hassan Lalu, Mehboob Chanda and Salim Zarda.
The court awarded capital punishment to the 11 by considering their crime to be in the “rare of the rare” category.
While the prosecution sought death for the 31 convicted, arguing that it was the “rarest of rare case”, the defence appealed that the convicts be spared the noose and sentenced to life in prison.
This is the first time so many people were sentenced to death in a single case in India since a judge handed down capital punishment in January 1998 to 26 people for former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination.
Special public prosecutor J.M. Panchal said those sentenced would have 90 days to appeal. Asked about the court’s observations, he said it was too early to comment as the full text was expected only March 3.
“According to the criminal procedure code, life sentence is of 20 years but the state can limit the sentence to 14 years,” he said
The case of the 11 awarded the death sentence will be sent to the Gujarat High Court for reference as statutory provisions rule that capital punishment has to be confirmed by the high court.
Defence lawyer I.M. Munshi said: “It’s very difficult to accept the judgment. We are going to appeal in the high court.”
He added that the conviction was awarded on 23 counts under various sections of the Indian Penal Code.
The Godhra train burning sparked the worst riots since partition with at least 1,000 people being killed, mostly Muslims, in the weeks that followed.
Reacting to the ruling, noted civil rights activist Swami Agnivesh said: “The whole verdict appears to be weak as it is based on dubious evidence of a single person.
“It will come up for appeal in the higher court. I am sure the truth will come out at last,” he added.