x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Death sentences for 11 Muslims over 2002 Gujarat train fire

Nine years after 59 Hindu pilgrims died in a fire on board a train, sparking revenge attacks in which 2,000 perished, a court has sentenced 11 of the perpetrators to death, with 20 more receiving life sentences.

AHMEDABAD // A court handed 11 death sentences and 20 life terms yesterday to Muslims convicted of burning Hindus alive in a train fire that triggered revenge attacks in which 2,000 perished.

Last week, 31 Muslims were found guilty of murder and conspiracy charges for causing the 2002 train fire in the western state of Gujarat, but 63 others were acquitted in a setback to the prosecution and police.

Fifty-nine Hindu pilgrims perished in the blaze at Godhra station, sparking an anti-Muslim backlash that resulted in some of India's worst religious violence since its independence in 1947.

Hindu mobs hungry for revenge rampaged through Muslim neighbourhoods in several cities during three days of bloodshed.

A total of 94 people, all Muslims, had stood trial at a court in Gujarat's largest city, Ahmedabad, where they had been detained since 2002.

Responsibility for the fire has been the subject of fierce dispute between India's Hindu and Muslim communities, and the trial verdicts supported Hindu claims that it was a planned attack rather than a result of mob violence.

Previously, a national inquiry concluded that the fire was an accident, and an investigation by an Indian news magazine, Tehelka, has also cast serious doubt on the neutrality of the police and the quality of their witnesses.

The judge felt the crimes fell "under the category of the rarest of the rare", the special public prosecutor JM Panchal told reporters outside the court, meaning the death sentence could be given.

"There was an active role, as far as these people are concerned, in the conspiracy and also setting fire to the coach."

The defence lawyer, IM Munshi, said all the men would appeal: "It is very difficult to swallow."

Muslims have always denied setting the train ablaze on February 27, 2002, though an angry crowd had gathered at Godhra station to protest against Hindu passengers allegedly taunting Muslim porters and hawkers.

Tehelka has run a series of articles questioning the testimony of witnesses who corroborated the idea of a pre-meditated attack by Muslims.

In 2007, the magazine filmed local Hindu activists confessing to making up their statements to police, while other prosecution witnesses have admitted to pressure to give false accounts of the violence.

The chief investigating policeman was also caught on a hidden camera making a series of anti-Muslim remarks, the magazine claims.