More than 14 years after the ghastly Gulberg massacre that killed 69 people, including former Congress MP Ehsan Jafri, 24 people were on Thursday convicted by a special court here which acquitted 36 others and dropped conspiracy charges against all the accused in one of the worst riots post-Godhra violence in Gujarat.
Eleven of the 24 accused were convicted for murder under Section 302 of the IPC by special judge P B Desai who convicted others for lesser offences. Out of the 66 accused, six had died during the trial.
Sitting BJP corporator Bipin Patel was among the acquitted while VHP leader Atul Vaidya figures among the 13 convicted for lesser offences. K G Erda, the then police inspector of the area in which the Gulberg Society was located and former Congress corporator Meghsinh Chaudhari were among those who were acquitted.
Dropping Section 120 B of the IPC, the court held that there is no evidence of criminal conspiracy in the case. The dropping of conspiracy charge could result in lesser sentencing in jail.
The quantum of sentence will be announced on June 6.
The prosecution is likely to seek capital punishment for the 11 convicted for murder, while the lawyers of victims said that they will seek imprisonment till death for them.
The Jafri family – his widow Zakia and son Tanvir – expressed disappointment over the number of acquittals in the case and said they would consult lawyers whether to appeal against the order.
R K Raghavan, former CBI director who had headed the Supreme Court-appointed SIT into the massacre, said he has “mixed feelings” on the verdict adding they would consult legal opinion on whether to appeal against the judgment.
The Gulberg Society massacre here on February 28, 2002 when Narendra Modi was Gujarat chief minister shook the nation when a mob of 400 people set about attacking the society in the heart of Ahmedabad and killed the residents including Jafri. It was one of the nine cases of the 2002 Gujarat riots probed by the Supreme Court-appointed SIT.
The incident had taken place a day after S-6 coach of Sabarmati Express was burnt near Godhra train station on February 27, 2002 in which 58 ‘kar sevaks’ going to Ayodhya were killed.
“We will seek capital punishment for 11 accused because the offence is barbaric and urge the court to consider it as the rarest of the rare case. 10-12 years jail will be sought for 13 others who have been found guilty of lesser offences,” special public prosecutor R C Kodekar said after the verdict.
“The SIT had placed charges of section 120 (B) of the IPC that of pre-planned conspiracy but there was no cogent material evidence against the accused regarding conspiracy and so we could not go further on this. We go by the evidence and material, and not feelings,” SIT lawyer R C Kodekar said on dropping of the conspiracy charges.
Regarding the acquittal of 36 people, he said that they will take a call after they get a full copy of the judgment.
The lawyer of Gulberg victims, S M Vora, said that he will not seek death sentence for all those convicted by the court.
“Out of the 24 convicted today, 11 have been charged under Section 302 of IPC (murder). Court may give either capital punishment or life sentence to them,” said Vora.
“Though court can give capital punishment to the convicts, we are not in favour of it. On June 6, we will tell the court that we want life imprisonment till death for these 11 convicts, as we are not in favour of death sentence,” Vora told reporters outside the court.
Zakia Jafri, who has been waging a battle for 14 years to secure justice for her late husband, expressed dissatisfaction with the verdict and said she will continue her fight.
“No I am not satisfied with the verdict. I did not like it. All should have been given punishment for what they did and what they did not. I know it all and as I have seen the massacre. I expected all to be convicted… How they killed people, how they made them homeless, I saw it myself,” Zakia said.
“As a woman I don’t have the courage to demand capital punishment but they should get stringent punishment. They should be given life imprisonment so they could know the pain of staying away from their family and children,” she said.
“My fight should have stopped but looking at today’s judgment the fight will continue,” she said.
Social activist Teesta Setalvad, who has been fighting for the victims of Gulberg Society, said they will study the judgment in depth and appeal in the higher court.
“We will study the judgment, we definitely believe that this is the case of criminal conspiracy and we will exercise our right of appeal in it,” Setalvad said.
Jafri’s son Tanvir raised questions on acquittal of 36 people.
“It was a big society with 15-20 bungalows and 10 apartments with 400-500 occupants. So how can 24 people loot and burn the entire society for 24 hours and kill so many people in such a brutal manner. So that way it looks very odd,” Jafri said.
“We are satisfied with conviction of 24 people but for 36 acquitted, we will go in for an appeal after discussing with our lawyers,” Jafri said.
The Supreme Court, which has been monitoring the case, had directed the SIT court to give its verdict by May 31.
During the course of trial, as many as 338 witnesses were cross-examined, with four different judges having presided over the case.
Of the 66 accused named by the SIT in the case, nine are behind bars, while others are out on bail.
One accused, Kailash Dhobi, had jumped the parole and even failed to turn up on Thursday in the court, thereby being declared absconding. He has been convicted for murder in the case.
As many as eight charge-sheets had been filed in the case, the last being on May 16, 2009 by the SIT after the apex court intervened on a petition filed by the victims’ family members.
Bipin Patel, who is acquitted in the case, is a sitting BJP corporator from Asarva seat. He was also corporator in 2002 when the massacre happened and won the election for fourth consecutive term last year.
During the trial, riots victim’s lawyer had argued that the massacre was a preplanned criminal conspiracy hatched by the accused to kill minority community members of the Gulberg Society.
The defence had refuted the conspiracy theory of prosecution and claimed that the mob resorted to violence only after Jafri fired several rounds at them.
Among those who were found guilty of charges including murder are: Kailash Dhobi, Yogendrasinh Shekhawat, Krushna Kumar Kalaal, Dilip Kalu, Jayesh Parmar, Raju Tiwari, Naran Tank, Lakhansinh Chudasama, Dinesh Sharma, Bharat Balodiya and Bharat Rajput.