Gujarat riots case: 31 get life for torching 33 including 11 children

Convicts break down while they are taken to jail after being sentenced
Sardarpura massacre z 17 women among those burnt alive by mob day after Godhra

A special riots court awarded life sentences to 31 people, mostly landed Patels of Sardarpura village in this district, for killing 33 Muslims who were employed as their farm labourers and were their neighbours, to avenge the Godhra train burning of February 27, 2002. Of the dead, 17 were women and 11 children.

Principal District Judge S C Srivastava convicted them for murder, rioting and promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion and other sections of IPC, but debunked the conspiracy theory, which came as a blow to the victims who have been arguing for a larger conspiracy in the post-Godhra riot cases.

Among those convicted are the then sarpanch of the village, Kachrabhai Tribhovandas Patel, and ex-sarpanch Kanubhai Joitaram Patel, who are said to be affiliated with the BJP.

The judgment runs into 1,024 pages and establishes the killing of kar sevaks on the Sabarmati Express as the motive for the massacre of Muslims in Sardarpura.

This is the first verdict in the nine post-Godhra riot cases which were being monitored by the Supreme Court. This is also the first verdict to be out after the apex court — on September 12 — ruled that the trial courts would decide the fate of the post-Godhra riot cases taking into account all the evidence collected by the Special Investigation Team.

In a way, the verdict vindicated the investigations by the Gujarat police before the SIT stepped in, as only two of the accused arrested later by the team under ex-CBI director R K Raghavan were convicted among the total 31 who face life imprisonment.

In March 2008, the SC, unhappy with the shoddy probe in the riots cases, had directed that an SIT including police officers from outside Gujarat, be formed to probe 10 of the cases, including the Godhra carnage case. Reacting to the judgment, Raghavan told The Indian Express: "The judgment is quite satisfying; conviction of 31 persons is quite a satisfactory judgement. We will study it in detail if an appeal is required after we receive the copy of the order."

On the night of March 1, 2002, 33 people were burnt alive in a small room where they had taken shelter from the angry mob. Judge Srivastava pronounced the sentence today after honourably discharging 11 of the accused and acquitting 31 with the benefit of doubt.

The riots in Sardarpura village in Vijapur taluka of Mehsana district had taken place on the intervening night of February 28 and March 1, 2002, when a 1,500-strong mob had attacked residents of 'Sheikhvaas', a minority-dominated area, who mostly lived in huts. After the mob attacked the locality, the men had herded the women, children and elders into the sole concrete house belonging to one Mehmood Sheikh. The rioting mob, however, had locked this house from outside and poured inflammable material and set it on fire. Twenty-eight people had died on the spot, while the rest succumbed to injuries subsequently. Of the dead, 17 were women and 11 children.

In all, 76 accused were arrested, of which two died during pendency of trial while one was a juvenile against whom trial is on in a juvenile court. In 2002, this was one of the major riot cases where all the 55 accused originally arrested by the police were let out on bail.

Public prosecutor SC Shah argued for maximum quantum of punishment on grounds that most of the victims were children. This was countered by defence lawyer B C Barot who said that this was "reaction to an action" echoing Chief Minister Narendra Modi's comment invoking Newton's third law in 2002 soon after the riots.

The other defence lawyer, H M Dhruv, argued that there was no conspiracy and the incident was a consequence of unlawful assembly and said that the prosecution had not assigned any specific role to the accused. Dhruv said, "They are illiterate farmers and were influenced by conditions".

The victims' lawyer tried to argue in favour of conspiracy saying that VHP leader Haresh Bhatt had come to Sardarpura some 20 days before the Godhra incident and made provocative speeches and distributed tridents. They also said that three days before the Godhra attack, the then state minister Naran Lallu Patel had held a meeting here and provoked the Patels. SIT has recorded statements of Bhatt and Patel, but did not find much substance in these allegations.

The accused listened to the verdict in stoic silence, some of those convicted, even went out of court smiling.

Present in the courtroom were Additional DGP Ashish Bhatia, DIGs K Venkateshwar and YC Modi from the SIT.

Apart from the sentence, the 31 convicts will have to pay a fine of Rs 21,700 each of which five will pay Rs 23,700 each. They will also have to shell out Rs 50,000 each as compensation for the victims which will be distributed equally among the survivors.

The judgment also gives a clean chit to Teesta Setalvad of Citizens for Justice and Peace on charges of tutoring witnesses. Judge Srivastava says about Setalvad, "Her motive was not wrong. She helped victims face questions in court. A person who is not conversant with the case cannot tutor witnesses".

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