A special court on Friday sentenced 11 people to life imprisonment for the murder of 69 people during the 2002 Gujarat riots, terming the Gulberg Society massacre as the “darkest day in the history of civil society”.
The court sentenced 12 other people to seven years in jail for arson and rioting while another was handed a 10-year sentence for the incident in Ahmedabad when communal riots swept through Gujarat after 59 Hindu activists were killed in the burning of a train in Godhra.
Justice PB Desai, however, acquitted 36 people including the alleged main conspirator and BJP councillor Bipin Patel and rejected prosecutors’ claims that the attack on the predominantly Muslim residential area was planned.
Among those killed in the Gulberg incident -- considered one of the worst single massacres during the post-Godhra bloodshed -- was former Congress parliamentarian Ehsan Jafri besides women and children, most of whom were burnt to death.
Jafri’s wife Zakia said she was unhappy with the quantum of sentence and would challenge the order in a higher court.
“After so many people died, that’s all the court could decide? Just 11 guilty? I will have to fight this,” Jafri said.
The judge refused death penalty saying, “If you look at all aspects, no previous antecedent has been placed on record.”
“Post the incident, 90 per cent of the accused was released on bail. Yet no complaints against them have been given even by victims, and there is no record to show that they committed any offence during the time of bail.”
The 12 convicts given a seven-year jail term include Atul Vaid, a leader of the right-wing Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP).
The Supreme Court-appointed special investigation team (SIT) also said the sentence was too “lenient”.
“We feel the sentence is lenient and inadequate...We are not convinced with the penalty awarded,” said SIT special prosecutor RC Kodekar who expressed anguish over the court’s refusal to add “till death” clause in the life sentence awarded to 11 convicts.
The SIT probed nine cases of the Gujarat riots including the massacre at Naroda Patiya where 97 people were killed by a mob. A sitting BJP MLA and former minister Maya Kodnani was sentenced to life along with 31 others for the incident, considered the single biggest massacre during the riots.
After arguments in the Gulberg case concluded on June 10, the court had acquitted 36 charged by SIT for lack of evidence. Five accused died during the trial period and one went missing.
Activist Teesta Setalvad who has been fighting for justice for the victims, also expressed disappointment with the “lesser sentence”.
Relatives of the convicts, on the other hand, claimed they were innocent and that they would appeal the sentence in higher courts.
The verdict sparked a war of words between the BJP and Congress.
“The entire incident of Gulberg was barbaric and anti-human. Instead of protecting people, the BJP government at that time gave a free hand to (the) violent mob. The government failed to do its constitutional duty. People were incited by some big leaders of BJP, who saw the violence as a tool to acquire power,” said Gujarat Congress spokesperson Manish Doshi.
Gujarat BJP spokesperson Bharat Pandya, however, said that there was no conspiracy behind the massacre.
“The Congress as well as people like Teesta (Setalvad) tried hard to prove that it was conspiracy, so that it can be used against the BJP. But, the court had ruled against their wishes.”