In a major jolt to the Narendra Modi government in Gujarat, the Supreme Court on Tuesday said that the 120 people accused in the 2002 Godhra train carnage case cannot be tried under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA).
The court said the state was bound by the findings of the POTA Review Committee, setting aside an order of the Gujarat High Court, which had upheld the state government’s view that the panel’s findings were not binding on it.
The government had also said that the review panel, though headed by a retired judge, was not a judicial body.
The review panel, which was formed after the controversial and stringent law was repealed to examine cases of all those booked under the provision, had in April 2005 concluded that the Sabarmati Express fire was a result of sudden provocation and not a conspiracy.
The panel had recommended that all the accused could be tried under relevant sections of the Indian Penal Code for murder, arson and rioting, as a case under POTA was not made out against them.
“Once the law made by Parliament specifically states that wherever the Review Committee is of the opinion that there is no prima facie case for proceeding against the accused, the cases shall be deemed to have be withdrawn,” Chief Justice of India K.G. Balakrishnan and Justice R.V. Raveendran said.
The apex court’s stamp of approval on the POTA Review Committee also casts a shadow of doubt on the state government-appointed Nanavati Commission’s finding released last month that the carnage, in which 59 people were killed, was pre-planned.
The verdict came on two sets of petitions — one filed by families of those killed in the Godhra incident and Akshardham temple attack and the second by those charged under POTA. The families had challenged the setting up of the review panel under the POTA repeal Act while the accused challenged the Gujarat High Court order, which said the panel’s findings were not binding.
The apex court rejected the state’s contention that no POTA case could be withdrawn without following the procedure laid down under Section 321 of the Criminal Procedure Code, which required application of mind by the public prosecutor in an independent manner.
Justice Dalveer Bhandari, the third judge on the bench, said in a separate but concurring judgment that subjecting the review panel’s decision to that of the public prosecutor went against the objective of the POTA (Repeal) Act of 2004.
However, the court made it clear that the review panel’s findings could be challenged before the high court.
Families of the accused welcomed the judgment. Saeed Umarji, son of accused Maulana Umarji, told HT on phone from Godhra: “The ruling has shown that we too can get justice in India.”
Inputs from Rathin Das in Ahmedabad.