Offering hope to hundreds of victims of the 2002 riots in Gujarat, a special trial court on Wednesday sentenced 31 accused to life imprisonment for the massacre of 33 Muslims in Gujarat's Sardarpura village on the intervening night of February 28 and March 1, 2002.
Principal district and sessions judge SC Srivastav, who concluded the trial within two years, found them guilty of murder and rioting but ruled out any conspiracy angle in the massacre. The court also acquitted 11 accused and let off the remaining 31 with fines of Rs 25,000 each.The verdict drew immediate comparisons with the slow pace of 42 acquitedanti-Sikh riot cases. The violence left 2,733 people dead in 1984 but so far, only 25 people have been convicted.
Wednesday's verdict sparked off a fresh war of words between the BJP on the one hand and the Congress and members of civil society on the other. “(Chief minister) Narendra Modi should be cross-examined,” said RB Srikumar, who was additional DG, Intelligence Bureau, during the riots, reiterating the civil society charge that the CM was somehow involved. Srikumar is a known Modi critic.
Modi is in China and Gujarat government spokesperson Jaynarayan Vyas was not available for comment. Giving an indication of the BJP's plans to turn the judgment to its advantage, state general secretary Vijay Rupani said: “The verdict silences those who used to defame Gujarat by saying there was no justice in the state.”
“It wouldn’t have happened without the Supreme Court's intervention,” said social activist Teesta Setalvad, who works with victims of the 2002 riots.
Sardarpura is one of nine Gujarat riots cases the SC handed over to a special investigation team (SIT) in March 2008 following charges of bias against the police. This is the second success for the SIT, after the Godhra train burning case, in which 11 accused got the death penalty and 20 received life imprisonment for the massacre of 59 Hindu pilgrims on February 27, 2002.
“The judgment is very satisfying,” SIT chief RK Raghavan said. Lawyers on both sides said they would challenge the verdict.