Photographs: Reuters Sheela Bhatt in Ahmedabad
A special court in the Sabarmati jail in Ahmedabad on Tuesday convicted 31 accused in what is the first verdict in the Godhra train burning case.
In the 850-page judgment delivered by Justice P R Patil, 63 accused, including prime accused Maulvi Omerjee, were acquitted in the case. However, other prime accused Razak Kurkur and Haji Billa were found guilty by the court.
The sentencing would be pronounced on February 25 after arguments on the quantum of punishment by the special court that accepted the theory of conspiracy behind the burning of the coach of Sabarmati Express carrying kar sevaks returning from Ayodhya at Godhra on February 27, 2002, in which 59 people were burnt alive, and is regarded as a precursor to the communal riots that rocked Gujarat.
According to the charge-sheet, a group of Muslims living in Singal Falia, an adjoining colony, had conspired to kill Hindu kar sevaks returning from Ayodhya on that train.
With inputs from PTI
'The court has accepted the conspiracy theory'
The quantum of punishment would be announced on Friday after hearing the 31 convicted under various sections of the Indian Penal Code like 302 (murder), 307 (attempt to murder) and 120-B (criminal conspiracy).
The charges upheld against the convicts come under IPC section 147, 148 (rioting with deadly weapons), 323, 324,325,326 (causing hurt), 153A (promoting enmity between different groups on religious grounds), various sections of the Indian Railways Act, Prevention of Damages to Public Property Act and Bombay Police Act.
"Special Court judge P R Patel has convicted 31 accused while acquitting 63 others," Public Prosecutor J M Panchal said after the verdict inside the Sabarmati jail.
"On February 25, there will be a hearing on the point of sentence, and after that quantum of punishment will be pronounced," Panchal said.
Scientific evidence, statement of witnesses, circumstantial and documentary evidence placed on record formed the basis of the judgment.
The trial conducted inside the Sabarmati central jail in Ahmedabad began in June 2009 with the framing of charges against 94 accused in the carnage, that had triggered widespread communal riots in Gujarat.
"Petrol was brought and the train was made to stop. Electricity was then cut and there was pouring of huge quantity of petrol and thereafter it was set afire so far as S-6 coach is concerned," Panchal said replying to a query on prosecution's theory of conspiracy.
253 witnesses, 1,500 documentary evidences were examined
Photographs: Amit Dave/Reuters
Asked whether he would demand death penalty for those convicted in the case, he said, "What will be the stand of prosecution I cannot disclose at this stage but on February 25, I will be making my humble submissions before the honourable court as discharge of my official duty."
On whether the prosecution was satisfied by the verdict, Panchal said, "There is no question of any satisfaction. One has to respect the judicial verdict. There cannot be a debate on the judicial verdict."
"Maulana (Umarjee) has been acquitted because the judge found that he is not guilty. The grounds on which he has been acquitted can be said only after reading full text of the judgment," Panchal said on the release of the prime conspirator.
As many as 253 witnesses were examined during the trial and over 1,500 documentary evidences were presented before the court by the Gujarat police.
There were a total of 134 accused in the case, out of which 14 were released due to lack of evidence, five were juvenile, five died during proceedings of over nine years, 16 are absconding, and trial was conducted against 94 accused.
Of the 94, against whom the trial was conducted 80 are in jail and 14 are out on bail.
Two panels inquiring into the incident has different views
Photographs: Amit Dave/Reuters
Two different panels appointed to inquire into the 2002 case had given different views on the Godhra train burning incident.
The Nanavati Commission, appointed by the Gujarat government to probe the carnage, had in the first part of the report concluded that the fire in the S-6 coach was not an accident, but it was caused by throwing petrol inside it.
"The burning of the coach S-6 was a pre-planned act. In other words there was a conspiracy to burn the coach of the train coming from Ayodhya and to cause harm to the 'kar sevaks' travelling in it," the report submitted to the government in September 2008 had said.
The one-man U C Banerjee commission appointed by the railway ministry under Lalu Prasad Yadav had said that fire was "accidental".
A turning point of Indian judicial history
The burning of Sabarmati Express has proven to be a turning point of contemporary Indian history.
The trial of one of the most controversial legal cases of independent India went on for more than 18 months. Many non-government organisations and accused had objected to the conduct of the trial in Gujarat. Almost every legal point of the case had been challenged in court.
The accused had complained that in the fight between Gujarat government and secular organisations, they have suffered a lot due to delayed justice.
When the Gujarat government applied the Prevention of Terrorism Act to the accused, its decision was challenged in court. POTA has now been repealed. The justification of applying POTA and the case related to powers of the review committee was heard in the Supreme Court.
Many ups and downs
Photographs: Arko Datta/Reuters
The police case was that Godhra residents Razak Kurkur and Maulvi Omerjee were part of the gang that hatched the conspiracy. Three accused were tracked to Karachi, Pakistan by the Gujarat police. Salim Panwala and Shaukat Charkha are still hiding in Pakistan while Ibrahim Kachuka has returned to face the trial.
The entire investigation was supervised by senior police officer Rakesh Asthana who is currently the police commissioner of Baroda.
As many as eight confessional statements have been recorded and are highly relied upon to build up the prosecution's case. One statement was recorded under Section 164 of the Criminal Procedure Code and the rest under Section 32 of POTA.
The case has seen many ups and downs. One of the witnesses Ilyas Husain Mulla had alleged that the Gujarat police tortured him. On balance, the courtroom proceedings were conducted without many hitches.
Some accused could face death
Photographs: Amit Dave/Reuters
According to reliable sources, the Special Investigation Team led by former Central Bureau of Investigation chief R K Raghavan has agreed with the conspiracy angle of the Gujarat police.
The public prosecutor of the case has requested the court to award 'major punishment' to the accused. Under the provisions of POTA and the Indian Penal Code, this could mean the death sentence or life imprisonment for more than dozen accused since Judge Patel has accepted the theory of conspiracy put forth by the prosecution.