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Guilty 31, innocent a lot more - Godhra blaze a conspiracy: Court

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  • Published 23.02.11

Ahmedabad, Feb. 22: A special court today ruled that the Godhra train fire that killed 59 people in 2002 and triggered the Gujarat riots was the result of a conspiracy, and convicted 31 accused.

The main accused, Maulvi Umarji, was acquitted along with 62 others in the 850-page judgment by the special court in Sabarmati Jail.

“This is a judicial pronouncement and it cannot be a subject of debate,” special public prosecutor J.M. Panchal said of the verdict that pleased the BJP because it upholds the conspiracy theory.

The conspiracy was hatched at Aman Guest House, Panchal said, quoting the judgment. Accordingly, the train was stopped, its power supply snapped, a large amount of petrol was poured and the coach set on fire.

The Narendra Modi government holds that the fire in coach S-6 of the Sabarmati Express that was returning with kar sevaks from Ayodhya was lit deliberately.

Defence counsel S.M. Dadi said there was no corroborative evidence to support the conviction of the 31 accused under Section 120B for conspiracy. The first chargesheet did not mention conspiracy, he said, and the charge was based on the confession of accused Ajay Baria who has been convicted.

Another defence lawyer, I.M. Munshi, said Baria’s “confessional statement was neither legal nor voluntary”. “The conspiracy theory itself has been discarded as the main accused have been acquitted,” he said.

Maulvi Umarji and another key accused, former Godhra municipality president Mohammed Kalota, have been acquitted by the court of Justice P.R. Patel for lack of evidence.

Munshi’s argument was echoed by social activist Hanif Lakdawala, who asked: “If the main conspirator… is innocent, how can there be a conspiracy?”

The judgment has found Razak Kurkur, the owner of Aman Guest House, to be the main conspirator along with the absconding Salim Panwala and Farooq Bhana who are suspected to be in Pakistan. Haji Bilal, a former Godhra municipal councillor, is another key accused found guilty.

The sentences will be handed on Friday.

Special public prosecutor Panchal claimed the verdict was based on scientific, circumstantial and documentary evidence as well as statements of witnesses. Five persons — Kurkur, Panwala, Bhana, Salim Zarda and Salim Bana — had met at Aman Guest House on February 26 and hatched the conspiracy and six persons had entered the coach and poured petrol, he said.

Initially, police had claimed that the inflammable liquid was poured from outside but forensic laboratory experts ruled out the possibility.

The U.C. Banerjee Inquiry Commission, set up by then railway minister Lalu Prasad, had reported in 2006 that the February 27, 2002, fire was an accident. It said the petrol could not have been poured from outside and that there was no mob at Godhra station. The report, however, could not be tabled in Parliament because another panel — the Justice Nanavati Commission set up by chief minister Modi — was also inquiring into the incident.

The Nanavati report in 2008 seconded the government’s conspiracy theory.

The Gujarat government spokesperson, Jaynarayan Vyas, today said: “We stand vindicated.”

Congress spokesperson Jayanthi Natarajan refused to comment on the judgment saying the party would have to study it first. But, she stressed, the riots that followed the train fire were a “blot on democracy” that Modi would always have to answer for.

In all, there were 134 accused, of whom 14 were released for lack of evidence, five were juvenile, five died and 16 are absconding. The trial started in 2009 against 94 accused, of whom 80 are in jail and 14 out on bail.

Defence lawyer Yusuf Charkha said a higher court would decide if a conspiracy was hatched to burn the train.