A special court here on Wednesday sentenced 31 persons to life imprisonment and fined them Rs.50,000 each for burning 33 Muslims alive at Sardarpura in Mehsana district during the 2002 communal riots in Gujarat.

Special court judge S.C. Srivastava, who is the Principal District and Sessions Judge of Mehsana, however, acquitted 42 other accused, 11 of them for lack of evidence and the remaining 31 got the benefit of the doubt. The 31 accused have been asked to submit a solvency bond of Rs.25,000 each and not to leave the country without the court's permission.

Legal experts said the verdict created history as it was the first case in which a large number of people were convicted for mob violence. It broke the record of the Bhagalpur riots case, in which 14 persons were convicted.

The court did not accept the prosecution's charge of criminal conspiracy under Section 120 (B) of the Indian Penal Code, which could have attracted the capital punishment, against any of the accused and concluded that the incident took place on the spur of the moment, on the night of March 1, 2002, two days after the February 27 Godhra train carnage.

Of the 76 accused in the Sardarpura massacre, two died during trial. One male was found juvenile, and the case against him is going on in the juvenile court.

The case was prosecuted by a Special Investigation Team, headed by a former director of the CBI. The Supreme Court, which received complaints that the Gujarat police were shielding the rioters, asked the SIT to probe nine incidents of mass violence and get the High Court to set up special courts to try the cases. The 31 convicted have been charged with murder, attempt to murder, rioting and other offences under the IPC, while the charges of criminal conspiracy against them were dropped by the court. Among the IPC Sections applied included 302 (murder) read with other Sections , attracting punishment from one month to 10 years of imprisonment, all to run concurrently.

Among the 31 convicts were 30 from the Patel community and one ‘Prajapati,' one of the “other backward communities.” They included the then sarpanch of the Sardarpura village, Katrabhai Tribhuvandas Patel, and a former sarpanch Kanubhai Joitaram Patel.

After the Godhra incident, in which 59 Hindu passengers, mostly Karsevaks, were burnt to death, riots broke out across the State.

According to the relatives of the victims of the Sardarpura violence, a mob of over 500 people surrounded a lane named Sheikh Vaas, where the Muslims of the village lived, on the night of March 1, 2002. Fearing the worst, 70 residents took shelter in the only ‘pucca' house in the locality, owned by a person called Ibrahim Sheikh. The mob attacked the house and set it afire. It later threw in an exposed electric wire. While 33 people, including 20 women and 11 minors, were charred to death, the rest were rescued by the police some three hours later.

Survivors: More Should have been convicted

Some survivors of the 2002 Sardarpura carnage in Mehsana district of Gujarat said they were “happy” with the verdict by a special court given on Wednesday (awarding life term for 31 accused), but would have appreciated it if more accused had been convicted.

Sheikh Dilawar Miya, 21, who lost his parents and a sister in the killings and was among the survivors in the only pucca house in the locality that was attacked by mobs, and Sheikh Ghulam Ali, who lost 13 members of his family at Sardarpura, echoed this sentiment.

They claimed that during the trial, they and other witnesses were “under tremendous pressure,” but refused to disclose who was pressuring them. “We have only heard that some of the witnesses were threatened.”

The surviving relatives of the victims, now living in the Satnapur rehabilitation centre, are still too scared to go to Sardarpura and would never go back to their original village. “The atmosphere there is still not conducive for us to live.”

The retired Additional Director-General of Police, R.B. Shreekumar, who was among those helping the victims of the 2002 riots, alleged that the Narendra Modi government made no effort at reconciliation to improve the social relations between the two communities. That was why tension continued to prevail in the riot-torn areas. He also accused the SIT of “religiously following” the road map prepared by the State police while investigating the case.

The advocates of both the victims and the convicts said they would consider appealing against the judgment after studying the verdict.

The investigation in the Sardarpura case was stopped in 2003 on an order from the Supreme Court, which constituted the SIT in 2008 and the investigation resumed. The designated courts were formed in 2009. The court framed charges against 73 accused in June 2009 and initiated the trial.

The prosecution alleged that the attack on the Muslim community was pre-planned and the conspiracy was hatched by some local leaders, following the Godhra incident. It also submitted that at least 10 days before the incident, a number of people from outside, including some influential BJP and Vishwa Hindu Parishad leaders, had come to the village and created communal tension. Later, weapons were distributed by the accused in the run-up to the incident.

The accused, however, claimed that they were being falsely implicated and the violence was perpetrated by some unknown people who had come from outside.

A satisfying verdict, says Raghavan

The former CBI Director, R.K. Raghavan, leading the SIT that probed the Sardarpura case, told The Hindu: “This is a generally satisfying verdict in which 31 accused have been convicted for various grave offences. I must compliment my investigating team of dedicated officers led by Dr. Venkatesham, IGP of the Maharashtra cadre. We will have to study the judgment in detail and explore the prospects of an appeal against those who have been acquitted.”

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The 31 people who were sentenced to life imprisonment are

Ramesh Patel, Chatur Patel, Jayanti Patel, Amrat Patel, Jaga Patel, Kachara Patel, Mangal Patel, Bhika Patel, Mathar Patel, Suresh Patel, Tulsi Patel, Raman Patel, Rakesh Patel, Ramesh Patel, Magha Patel, Suresh Patel, Vishnu Patel, Rajendra Patel, Prahlad Patel, Ramesh Patel, Parshottam Patel, Ashwin Patel, Ambalal Patel, Ramesh Patel, Jayanti Patel, Kanu Patel, Raman Prajapati, Dahya Patel, Mathar T Patel, Dahya Patel and Kala Patel.