Death penalty for 11 in India train burning case

AP , Tuesday 1 Mar 2011

The attack, nine years ago, killed 60 Hindus and lead to days of communal violence in the state of Gujarat between Muslims and Hindus

Indian police officers stand guard as unidentified Muslims return after meeting with relatives at the Ahmedabad Central Jail in Ahmadabad, India, (AP).

An Indian court sentenced 11 Muslims to death Tuesday after finding them guilty of setting fire to a train in which 60 Hindus were killed nine years ago, an act that triggered one of India's worst outbursts of communal violence. Judge P.R. Patel last week convicted 31 Muslims of being part of a criminal conspiracy that led to the deaths of 60 people when the Sabarmati Express train coach packed with Hindu pilgrims was set on fire in western Gujarat state in 2002.

The court sentenced another 20 defendants to life in prison, prosecutor J.M. Panchal said. Sixty-three others were acquitted, including Maulvi Umarji, a local politician who prosecutors said was the leader of the mob that set fire to the train.

The train deaths set off days of communal riots when Hindu mobs rampaged through Muslim neighborhoods, towns and villages in Gujarat from February to April 2002.

Most of the dead were Muslims.

The religious violence was among India's worst since its independence from Britain in 1947, and the case laid bare the animosity between the groups.

Many insist that the fire was an accident, as determined by an independent probe in 2006. But others, including a 2008 commission set up by the state government, insist it was planned by Muslims.

The state government, which is controlled by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, has been accused by the opposition and the media of not doing enough to stop the violence and of even stoking it. Chief Minister Narendra Modi, who was at the helm when the fire and rioting happened, remains in power, and his officials deny the charge.

Meanwhile, India's Supreme Court has criticized the Modi government for its handling of cases against the Hindus rioters: No one has been convicted in the Muslim deaths and half of the more than 4,000 cases registered after the riots have been dropped for lack of evidence.

Defense attorney I.M. Munshi said Tuesday that those convicted would appeal against the verdict in a higher court. They have 90 days to do so.

The trial began in 2009 with charges against 94 people accused of involvement in the train fire. More than 250 witnesses gave evidence in the court, which ruled that the fire was a "pre-planned act."

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