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.