A court in the Indian city of Ahmedabad has found 31 people guilty of setting fire to the Sabarmati Express train. The incident in which 59 people, mostly Hindu devotees, were burnt to death, triggered riots in Gujarat.
Arsonists set fire to the Sabarmati Express in 2002
The verdict was pronounced at Ahmedabad's Sabarmati Central Jail, where the trial was held. Scientific evidence, statements of witnesses, circumstantial and documentary evidence formed the basis of the judgment.
The conviction supports Hindu claims that the attack on the Sabarmati Express in 2002 was a conspiracy.
Hindu mobs attacked Muslims across Gujarat, burning homes and businesses in riots after the Godhra incident
In the following state-wide violence between the main religious communities, over 1,000 people, mostly Muslims, were killed. According to rights groups, the toll was much higher. The opposition and media have accused the Gujarat state government, controlled by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), of not doing enough to stop the violence and of possibly even stoking it.
All of the accused in the case belong to the Muslim community. The court also acquitted 63 of them, among them, Maulvi Saeed Umarji, the prime accused in the case. His son, Saeed Umarji, who has been fighting for his father’s release, said he is relieved, "I welcome the judgment on my father. Our confidence in the judiciary has been strengthened by the court's judgment. But the way he was projected especially by the investigators, and the way my old man was kept in jail for eight years, it was a big injustice."
The Bharatiya Janata Party’s spokesperson Ravi Shankar Prasad, who himself is a lawyer, said he would advise the prosecution to appeal against the acquittals to a higher court.
"Conspiracy has been established. There is a hierarchy of courts in India. I will advise the concerned authorities in the prosecution to move the appellate court as to on what grounds he has been left off. But many people doubted the fact itself and now the court has found there is a conspiracy leading to this unfortunate incident."
Bharatiya Janata Party spokesman Ravi Shankar Prasad, left
Two different panels of inquiry had come to different conclusions regarding the Godhra train burning. India’s Supreme Court finally stepped in and ordered another investigation in 2008.
Jailed since 2002
The trial began in June 2009, with the framing of the charges against the accused, who have been in Sabarmati jail since 2002. All the accused in the case have been charged with criminal conspiracy and murder.
The Congress party’s general secretary, B K Hari Prasad, said the party’s position had been vindicated to an extent.
"What we have been saying right through after the Godhra incident is we are not opposed to giving punishment to those involved in the incident. But all along we have been saying that innocent people should not be punished. So it vindicated our stand that innocents were there in jail, some of them were blind, some of them just boys."
Fears of fresh violence
In anticipation of the judgment, security was tightened in Gujarat in particularly in sensitive areas like Godhra and Ahmedabad, as there were fears of new outbreaks of violence.
The court is expected to hand down the sentences to those found guilty on Friday.
Author: Murali Krishnan (New Delhi)
Editor: Sarah Berning