An Indian court has handed down sentences to 31 Muslims convicted for torching a passenger train in the western state of Gujarat in 2002. The deadly incident triggered anti-Muslim riots that killed hundreds.
Dozens of Hindu pilgrims died when their train was set on fire in 2002
On Tuesday, 11 Muslim men were sentenced to death and 20 life-terms were handed down to others who had been convicted of burning alive dozens of people in 2002.
Fifty-nine Hindu pilgrims died in the blaze at Godhra station that sparked some of the worst religious riots seen in India since independence in 1947.
In three days of bloodshed, Hindu mobs hungry for revenge killed at least 1,200 people across Gujarat, most of them Muslims. According to certain human rights groups, the death toll was much higher.
Many of the 100 suspects detained after the blaze were acquitted last week
The police detained more than a 100 suspects after the fire. A total of 94 - all of them Muslim - have now stood trial at a court in Ahmedabad, Gujarat's biggest city.
Two thirds of the suspects acquitted
The judge acquitted 63 of them last week, including Maulvi Umarji, who had been accused of being the mastermind behind the fire. Five have died while awaiting trial and eight more were acquitted at an earlier date.
Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi has been accused of not doing enough to stop the anti-Muslim riots
The court described those convicted on Tuesday as a "core committee" that organized a mob of nearly 1,000 people to set the train on fire.
Hindu organizations have claimed the attack on the train carrying pilgrims from the holy city of Ayodya was a well-planned conspiracy. Responsibility for the train fire has been fiercely disputed between India’s Hindu and Muslim communities. The recent trial verdict overturns a previous national enquiry concluding that the fire was an accident.
Gujarat’s Chief Minister Narendra Modi, a prominent member of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), has been accused of failing to do more to stop the riots. Seen as a future candidate for prime minister, Modi has always denied the allegations but seems to have difficulties shrugging off accusations of mishandling the Gujarat riots.
Tuesday's verdict was expected to be challenged in the High Court. Defense lawyer I.M. Munshi said it was "very difficult to swallow" and that all the men would appeal against the punishment.
Editor: Thomas Baerthlein