The Gujarat High Court has ruled that the burning of a train coach at Godhra in Gujarat in 2002 which killed 59 persons was neither "terrorism" nor an "act of waging war" against the state.
The court on Monday commuted the death sentence on 11 convicts in the burning of the Sabarmati Express coach but upheld the decision that there was a conspiracy angle to the episode. The train burning ignited bloody riots in Gujarat that claimed over 1,000 lives.
The court recalled in its judgment that the Law Commission wanted the death penalty abolished for crimes not related to acts of terrorism or war against the state.
"Death penalties eliminate a person to a point of no return. While considering the question of sentence to death, a duty is cast upon the court to deliberate on various facets of sentence and to immunise itself to avoid branding imposition of death sentence as `judge centric' or `blood thirsty'," the court said,
The court noted that though the accused set fire to the coach to cause death and maximum damage, they had no intention to enhance the number of casualties.
"About more than 100 people could escape... Besides, qualitative analysis of the entire evidence though sufficient enough to sustain conviction do not justify awarding sentence of death and, therefore, we are of the opinion that the death penalty is not warranted."
Judges A.S. Dave and G.R. Udhwani ordered compensation of Rs 10 lakh each to the kin of the deceased.
They pulled up the Gujarat Police for not pursuing proper investigation, the Gujarat government then led by now Prime Minister Narendra Modi for not maintaining law and order and the railways for not ensuring the safety of the passengers coming from Uttar Pradesh.
The court heard petitions challenging the SIT court judgement of March 2011 that acquitted 63 of the 94 tried and convicted 31 people, with 20 handed life imprisonment and 11 capital punishment.
Confirming the conspiracy theory, the High Court said the "emergence, pattern, nature, ignition, colour of flames and temperature along with smoke and fire in coach S-6 of the ill-fated train based on replies by experts persuade us to reject theories canvassed by learned counsel for the defence about fire in the coach was due to unknown cause other than the conspiracy for which proper method of investigation in the cases of arson was not followed".