31 convicted in deadly Godhra train fire that sparked fatal anti-Muslim riots in India

Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, February 22, 2011; 7:14 PM

NEW DELHI - An Indian court in the western state of Gujarat has found 31 Muslims guilty of setting fire to a train coach nine years ago, killing 59 Hindu passengers in an incident that sparked some of the worst religious violence in India in recent years.

The verdict was delivered inside the jail by Judge P.R. Patel who charged the men with murder and criminal conspiracy in the plot to kill the Hindu activists. The judge acquitted 63 others accused in the case.

Sentences are scheduled to be announced Friday.

The defendants bought gas, cut into the vestibule to pour it inside and torched the train, said J.M. Panchal, the public prosecutor in the case.

The Sabarmati Express train was carrying Hindu activists who were returning from a pilgrimage. Police had accused the Muslim mob of executing a well conceived plan in the town of Godhra on Feb. 27, 2002.

However, human rights activists and lawyers defending the accused have argued that it was an accident and not an act of sabotage.

The court on Tuesday upheld the conspiracy argument, but acquitted 70-year-old Maulana Hussain Umarji, who was accused as a key conspirator.

"We are not satisfied with this judgement. There are so many contradictions. We will appeal in higher courts," said I.M. Munshi, the defense lawyer

The burning of the train triggered reprisal riots in the following days that left more than 1,000 Muslims dead in Gujarat. The verdict on Tuesday is the first among nine court cases examining those accused in the violence.

The court trials have, over the years, become a litmus test for the 130 million-strong Muslim minority's faith in secular India's judiciary.

Saeed Umarji welcomed the acquittal of his father, Maulana Hussain Umarji, but said that the case has brought untold misery upon his family.

"My father has suffered all these years from various ailments inside the jail, and has been dangling between life and death. Our family has gone through so much pain and stigma," Saeed Umarji said by telephone. "But the court case is about a larger issue too. Do poor, honest, hard-working Muslims have the space to live with dignity in Indian society today?"

Ninety-four people were on trial in the case. Of those, 80 were in prison, and the rest were out on bail. The high-profile trial examined more than 253 witnesses in the last 15 months.

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