Ahmedabad: Nine years after the Godhra train carnage, 11 people were sentenced to death and 20 awarded life imprisonment by a special court here on Tuesday. The 2002 incident which left 59 'karsevaks' dead and triggered communal riots in Gujarat, had claimed over 1200 lives.

Special Judge P R Patel awarding death sentence to 11 of the 31 convicts termed the incident as "rarest of the rare", and ordered that they be "hanged by the neck till dead".

“In the country, this is perhaps the first case in which eleven people have been awarded capital punishment,” Special Public Prosecutor J M Panchal said after the court pronounced the punishment inside Sabarmati Jail.

The High Court will have to confirm the death penalty.

The court while sentencing 20 others to life imprisonment said, "The sentence of imprisonment shall run concurrently... The accused shall be entitled to benefit of set-off, of the period of their detention as an under trial prisoner during the investigation and trial."

The court also imposed a fine of Rs 17,000 on each of the 31 convicts under various IPC sections.

On February 22, the court had convicted 31 people while accepting the prosecution's contention that there was a conspiracy behind the train burning incident in which 59 'karsevaks' returning from Ayodhya were killed in February 2002 and acquitted 63 other accused in the case.

All the 31 men were convicted under various IPC sections like 302 (murder), 307 (attempt to murder) and 120B (criminal conspiracy).

Besides, they were also convicted under IPC sections 147, 148 (rioting with deadly weapons), 149 (unlawful assembly) 323, 324, 325, 326 (causing hurt), 153A (promoting enmity between different groups on religious grounds), various provisions of the Indian Railways Act, Prevention of Damages to Public Property Act and Bombay Police Act.

"The court looking into their active role in the conspiracy and setting a fire S-6 coach of the Sabarmati Express train near Godhra railway station (on February 27, 2002), gave death penalty to 11 people," Panchal said.

Those awarded capital punishment are Bilal Ismail Abdul Majid Sujela alias Bilal Haji, Abdul Razak Mohammad Kurkur, Ramjani Binyamin Behra, Hasan Ahmed Charkha alias Lalu, Jabir Binyamin Behra, Mehboob Khalid Chanda, Salim alias Salman Yusuf Sattar Zarda, Siraj Mohammad Abdul Meda alias Bala, Irfan Abdul Majid Ganchi Kalandar, Irfan Mohammad Hanif Abdul Gani Pataliya and Mehbub Ahmed Yusuf Hasan alias Latiko.

Those acquitted included the prime accused Maulana Umarji and Mohammad Hussain Kalota, who was president of the Godhra Municipality at that time, Mohammad Ansari and Nanumiya Chaudhary of Gangapur, Uttar Pradesh.

Panchal said the prosecution has not received the copy of the judgment containing reasons for the punishment meted out and, therefore, he could not comment on the specific role and the differentiating factors due to which the 11 were given death and others life imprisonment.

Defence counsel I M Munshi said he was not happy with the verdict and would appeal in the High Court.

Explaining his disagreement with the judgment, Munshi said, "The court has not believed the first theory which said that the inflammable substance was poured from outside.

"The court has agreed to the second theory that the accused persons had entered the coach by cutting the vestibule between the S-6 and S-7 coaches, opened the sliding door and poured petrol in it."

He said the case of conspiracy was made almost four months after the incident and the statements on which the court seemed to have relied were recorded months after the incident.

Munshi said the prosecution failed to explain the delay in recording statements of key witnesses.

On February 22, the court had accepted the theory of criminal conspiracy behind the burning of the S-6 coach of Sabarmati Express carrying karsevaks returning from Ayodhya based on scientific evidence, statement of witnesses and circumstantial and documentary evidence placed on record.

Out of the 94 accused tried, the court found 31 guilty of criminal conspiracy and murder, while 63 others were acquitted of all charges.

The Nanavati Commission, appointed by the Gujarat government to probe the carnage, had concluded that the fire in the S-6 coach was not an accident, but it was caused by throwing petrol inside it.

On the other hand, the one-man U C Banerjee Commission appointed by the Railway Ministry under Lalu Prasad had said that fire was "accidental".

Minority areas remain closed

The minority community dominated areas in Godhra wore a deserted look on Tuesday, following the court verdict.

Though there were no untoward incidents reported from any part of the city, all shops and business establishments in the minority dominated areas like Signal Falia, Polan Bazar and station Dhakka remained closed.

According to district officials, adequate security arrangements were made in view of the Godhra verdict which was pronounced by special Judge P R Patel inside the Sabarmati Central jail in Ahmedabad.

Gujarat Govt welcomes verdict

Welcoming the court verdict, the Gujarat government spokesperson Jaynarayan Vyas said, "We respect and welcome the court's verdict in the Godhra case."  

He declined to comment anything further, saying he has not read the full judgment.

VHP said the verdict has disappointed the victims of the Godhra train carnage who were expecting death rap for all accused.

"The Godhra judgment is highly disappointing. First, out of the 94 accused only 31 were convicted and of that, only 11 get death sentence. We demand death sentence for all 94 accused", VHP international general secretary Pravin Togadia said in a statement.

Togadia said, "The Gujarat government should appeal against the verdict in the High Court".

VHP's Gujarat secretary Kaushik Mehta said they have asked the government to appeal against the acquittal of 63 accused and seek death penalty for 20 convicts who have been given life sentence.

Father Cedric Prakash, Director of NGO Prashant who has been working for the post-Godhra riot victims, said the court judgment was "outrageous and shocking".

‘Judgment doesn’t justify Gujarat riots’

Law Minister Veerappa Moily in Delhi said the Gujarat court's judgment in the Godhra case does not justify the riots that followed the train burning incident.

"Judgment does not justify the riots that followed after (train burning) it,"  Moily told reporters outside Parliament.

"How can you justify that... trial of those (riot) cases has to go on independently and culprits have to be punished," he said.

Asked to comment on BJP's statement that the order has laid to rest the theory that everything was instigated by the Narendra Modi government, Moily said, "I am not going to comment on that...there are differing reports of the commissions. Nanavati Commission is yet to give a report. There are other reports like Justice Mukherjee report. I do not want to get into it."

However, he said, "There is an appeal. We have to abide by that."

CPM for speedy conclusion of cases

The CPI(M) sought speedy conclusion of all Gujarat riot cases, saying two-thirds of the accused in the Godhra case were released only after they spent eight years in jail.

"Two-thirds of those who have been accused, kept in jail for nearly eight years, have been released. All have been exonerated. Remaining some have been given death sentence the others have been given life imprisonment", CPI(M) Politburo member Sitaram Yechury said, reacting to the Godhra verdict.

Maintaining that the verdict would be challenged in the High Court, he said "likewise, we are saying that and all post-Godhra riot cases "must also be speedily concluded and justice must be delivered".