Ahmedabad, June 17 (IANS) Fourteen years after 69 people were massacred at a Muslim housing society here during the 2002 Gujarat riots, an Ahmedabad court on Friday sentenced 11 of the 24 convicts to life in prison, one man for 10 years and 12 others for seven years.
The quantum of punishment by the special court disappointed Zakia Jafri, the wife of Ehsan Jafri, a former MP who was among those brutally attacked and later burnt in the February 28, 2002 mass murder.
Pronouncing the punishment in a packed courtroom, Special SIT Court Judge P.B. Desai dubbed the day of the killings at the Gulberg Housing Society “the darkest day in the history of civil society”.
But he rejected the prosecution’s request to treat it as a “rarest of rare” case.
Judge Desai refused capital punishment to the convicts as sought by the prosecution and advocates for the victims saying it was beyond his court’s jurisdiction. The prosecution had argued that those murdered, including women and children, were all innocent.
The judge also said he would not write in the verdict that those convicted of murder and sentenced to life must be kept in prison till their last breath in view of their good conduct while on bail and in jail.
The government had the right to remit the life sentence after 14 years if it wished to, but Judge Desai appealed to it not to invoke the provision.
The court earlier turned down the conspiracy theory in its verdict.
The one who got 10 years in prison was convicted of attempt to murder and 12 others, including Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) leader Atul Vaidya, were held guilty of rioting and arson and given seven years in prison.
The families of the victims said their fight for justice had not ended.
Zakia Jafri said she was a witness to the “brutal” killing of her husband.
“They stripped him, chopped off his limbs and burnt him alive on the street. Is this the punishment for that brutal killing?” asked the 78-year-old woman who has been fighting a lengthy legal battle for justice.
Indicating she would approach the higher court, Zakia said she would talk to her lawyer for the next step.
Civil rights activist Teesta Setalvad said it was a “diluted and weak” judgment and vowed to appeal against it.
“Eleven people were given life imprisonment since they were convicted in serious offences. But the biggest disappointment for us is the rest of the convicts, including 12 given seven years of imprisonment,” she said.
The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party called the judgment a “victory of truth”. Cabinet minister and Gujarat government spokesperson Nitin Patel said: “The right punishment has been awarded to the convicts as the court has ruled out the conspiracy theory”, adding the BJP stands vindicated.
State Congress spokesperson Manish Doshi said the prosecution had failed to establish a conspiracy and could not nail the “big fish who escapted scot-free”. He said the then Gujarat government allowed such heinous killings to happen despite advance information.
“The sentence is less; it could have been harsher. The real culprits slipped away and smaller people were punished,” he said.
The Gulberg massacre was among 10 deadliest incidents during the riots investigated by the Supreme Court-appointed Special Investigation Team (SIT).
The massacre at the Gulberg society, which was home to upper middle class Gujarati Muslims in the Hindu-dominated Chamanpura area of Ahmedabad, was one of the most horrific outbursts of violence during the Gujarat riots which were sparked off by a train burning at Godhra that led to the death of 59 Hindus, mostly VHP supporters.
The Gulberg killings took place when a 20,000-25,000-strong armed mob attacked the housing society. Witnesses would later say that police failed to rescue the victims despite their repeated requests — and though the area was located in the heart of Ahmedabad.