Ahmedabad, June 2: Fourteen years after an armed mob set ablaze the Gulberg Housing Society, massacring 69 people, including former Congress MP Ehsan Jafri, a special Gujarat court on Thursday convicted 24 people, including VHP leader Atul Vaidya, but rejected the serious prosecution charge of conspiracy.
Special Sessions Court Judge P.B. Desai also declared 36 of the 66 accused as "not guilty" for want of evidence and ordered their acquittal. Zakia Jafri, the widow of Ehsan Jafri, who had taken up the matter to the Supreme Court, voiced her unhappiness at the verdict, terming it "half justice". She said she would appeal to the Gujarat High Court against the verdict.
Of the 24 people convicted, the court found 11 persons guilty of committing murder under Section 302 of the Indian Pel Code and 13 others guilty of lesser crime. Atul Vaidya has been convicted for lesser crimes under Section 436, among others, for attacking and burning shops and houses. Former Congress corporator Megh Sinh Chaudhry is also among those convicted.
Those set free include Bharatiya Jata Party (BJP) corporator Bipin Patel and police inspector of Meghanigar K.G. Erda, who had filed the first FIR in the case but later was included among the accused for dereliction of duty.
Patel is a sitting corporator from Asarva ward. He was also corporator in 2002 when the massacre took place on February 28, a day after 59 train passengers, most of them Hindu pilgrims, perished in a fire on the Sabarmati Express near Godhra train station. Patel won the election for the fourth consecutive term in 2015.
The court rejected the conspiracy charge of the prosecution in the case. Advocate Abhay Bharadwaj, who is among of the team of lawyers who defended the accused persons, said: "The court has accepted our argument that there was a conspiracy to involve a conspiracy theory. This is why the conspiracy theory of the prosecution has been rejected by court."
He added, "The Judge first said that there's no conspiracy. The judge told the government lawyer that he did not want everyone together, but you have to address me on individual count of individual accused and tell which individual did what. So the very basis of the prosecution has collapsed."
Reacting to the court verdict, Zakia Jafri, who had taken up the matter to the Supreme Court which led to the formation of the Special Investigation Team in the case in 2009, said the SIT had seemingly not done the inquiry properly.
"More than half of them have been acquitted, which shows that the verdict and the investigation were not up to mark. It is like half justice. I will have to continue my legal battle (approaching the higher court again) as well," she said.
An armed mob set on fire the entire Gulberg Housing Society in Ahmedabad's Meghanigar area, inhabited by members of the minority community, in broad day light and killed 69 people.
While the charred bodies of 39 people were found from the society after the arson, 30 other people were declared dead by the Special Investigation Team as there was no trace of them 12 years after the incident.
The sessions court judge will pronounce the sentences on the convicts on June 6.
All the 60 accused remained present in court while their family members thronged the court compound in large numbers.
The judge had heard the case on a day-to-day basis on the instructions of the Supreme Court, which on February 22 this year directed the sessions court to pronounce its verdict in three months' time.
The Gulberg massacre case is one of the nine major cases of the 2002 Gujarat violence which were probed by a Supreme Court-appointed SIT.
Earlier, the apex court while instructing the special court to expedite the hearing of the case had also said that the judgment should not be pronounced without its permission.
The SIT had med 66 accused in the case. Nine of them have been in jail for the last 14 years, while the remaining were out on bail. Six of them died during the course of the trial.
Former IPS officer R.K. Raghavan, who was chief of the SIT that probed the 2002 riots, said that he had applied "the highest possible standards" in investigating the riots.
"We did an honest piece of job, applying highest possible standards. When that lady (Zakia Jafri) came to me, my heart went out and I was in tears. I assured her that we would do our job," Raghavan told a TV news channel.