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March 01, 2011, 3:23 AM EST || By Bibhudatta Pradhan || Bloomberg Businessweek
March 1 (Bloomberg) — An Indian court sentenced 11 Muslims to death and 20 others to life in prison for conspiring to set fire to a train carrying Hindu pilgrims in 2002, a blaze that triggered some of the worst rioting in the country’s history.
The special court in Ahmedabad, the biggest city in western Gujarat state, last week convicted the 31 people for their role in starting the fire in the town of Godhra in February 2002, killing 59 Hindus. The verdict was the first linked either to the train burning or the subsequent riots in which over 1,000 people, mostly Muslims, were killed.
The crimes come “under the category of the rarest of the rare,” public prosecutor J.M. Panchal told reporters today. Today’s ruling “is very difficult to swallow,” said I.M. Munshi, a defense lawyer. “We will appeal.”
The state government of Chief Minister Narendra Modi of the Bharatiya Janata Party, India’s main federal opposition party, was accused by political parties and human rights groups of failing to stop the riots and even allowing the violence to continue. The BJP led by Modi, whose administration said it did its best to maintain law and order, subsequently won re-election in the state.
“It’s a politically charged trial and will be subject to scrutiny and further review by higher courts,” Suhas Chakma, director of the Asian Centre for Human Rights, said in a phone interview in New Delhi. “One question the Gujarat government has to answer — if they could complete the trial for the burning of the train, why not that for the subsequent riots that took place?”
Most of those killed in the train fire were returning from Ayodhya, a city where Hindus and Muslims have disputed ownership of a religious site since an ancient mosque was torn down by a Hindu mob in 1992.
In May 2009, the Supreme Court ordered the setting up of six fast-track courts to speed up cases linked to the fire and rioting in 2002. The top court said the cases could be heard in Gujarat, rejecting a petition from the National Human Rights Commission that they be transferred out of the state to ensure trials were free and fair.
Earlier investigations into the cause of the blaze were contradictory. One panel appointed by the railway ministry said in its March 2006 report that the blaze aboard the Sabarmati Express “was not a deliberately attempted or inflicted fire, but an accidental fire.” A commission set up by the Gujarat government blamed members of the Muslim community after an altercation at the station between some pilgrims and Muslim vendors.
Control of the mosque site in Ayodhya was split between Muslim and Hindu groups, which received two-thirds of the land, by a court last September. The Supreme Court is now hearing appeals against the ruling.
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