The Gujarat High Court Monday commuted the death sentence of 11 convicts to rigorous life imprisonment and upheld the sentencing of 20 others to life term in the 2002 Godhra train burning case. It also confirmed the acquittal of the 63 remaining accused.
Pronouncing the judgment, the division bench of Justices Anant S Dave and G R Udhwani also held that the state government had failed to discharge its duty in maintaining law and order in the incident and directed it to pay compensation of Rs 10 lakh each to families of the 59 people killed.
The bench said that the trial court judgment had not addressed this aspect and that those who suffered injuries should also get compensation and the amount be decided by the government. ‘If we say anything, police will come to question us’
Fifty-nine people travelling in the S-6 coach of Sabarmati Express, mostly kar sevaks returning from Ayodhya, were burnt alive at the Godhra railway station on February 27, 2002. The incident had triggered widespread communal riots across the state.
The High Court upheld the findings of the special trial court against those held guilty. The 11, whose death was commuted to life, had been held guilty of murder, to be read with charges of conspiracy and unlawful assembly.
Among those whose acquittal was upheld by the court was main accused Maulana Umarji, who passed away in 2013.
Special Public Prosecutor J M Panchal said that since the copy of the order was not available, it was not clear on what basis the court had commuted the death sentence, and pointed out that the 11 would still serve “rigorous life imprisonment”.
Before reading out its verdict, the bench led by Justice Dave said: “We regret for the delay in pronouncing the judgment…We understand the difficulties of victims and convicts… There are certain things which are not in our control.” It will send out a wrong message, say families of those killed on train
The bench said that it arrived at its conclusion after going through records, including forensic, and statements of the injured, the passengers, the railway employees, the railway police, the Godhra town police, and the fire brigade.
The trial court, presided over by P R Patel, who was then additional sessions judge and is now Registrar, High Court, had in 2011 held the case to be “rarest of rare”. It had gone by the conclusion of the Supreme Court appointed-Special Investigation Team that the fire was the result of a conspiracy hatched by the accused a day earlier.
While 58 people had died on the spot, one person had died at the hospital. Among the deceased were 29 men, 22 women, and eight children. Around 45 people sustained injuries. Read about the 11 convicts whose death sentences were commuted to life
Initially, the accused were charged under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA), but the High Court had revoked this following recommendations of the Central POTA Review Committee. A total of 94 persons were initially chargesheeted based on a complaint lodged by then engine driver Rajendra Rao Jadav.
The trial court held: “The cause of fire was not short-circuit or accidental because of any leakage of kerosene from the stove of any passenger but definitely petrol in huge quantity came to be poured inside the coach (in) the rear portion, after entering into (the) coach, and then using burning rag, it was ignited.”
The court held that the target of the mob was not the passengers but specifically the kar sevaks.
Senior lawyer I H Syed, who appeared for convicts, said that there are several points based on which judgment will be challenged in the Supreme Court. He alleged that there was “concocted” evidence and witnesses were “tutored.”