NEW DELHI (Reuters) - A special court on Tuesday sentenced to death 11 people for setting fire to a train in Godhra in 2002, lawyers said, an act that led to some of the worst religious riots in the country since independence.
The Sabarmati Express was carrying Hindu devotees returning from the site of the Babri mosque in Ayodhya. More than 2,500 people, mostly Muslims, were killed in the subsequent riots in Gujarat.
Critics say the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) which rules Gujarat, did little to stop the violence and many believe the riots led to the defeat of the BJP in the 2004 general elections.
The court last week found 31 accused guilty of conspiracy to torch the train, a judgement that seemed to back the BJP’s stance arson was planned to spark off riots. Opponents say the fire was accidental and was used as an excuse for the violence.
The death sentences must be confirmed by a higher court.
Another 20 people were sentenced to life imprisonment, prosecutor J.M. Panchal told reporters outside the courtroom.
“The prosecution case has been vindicated,” Jainarayan Vyas, a spokesman for the Gujarat government, told CNN-IBN television.
Following the riots, the United States refused to issue a visa to Narendra Modi, Gujarat’s business-friendly chief minister. The Supreme Court condemned his government as “modern-day Neros” who allowed killings with impunity.
Many human rights groups say the riots have been used by Islamists to recruit Indian Muslims to militant groups. The Indian Mujahideen, a local militant group, has cited these riots for the several bombings it has claimed.
Reporting by C. J. Kuncheria