23 convicted, 23 acquitted in post-Godhra riots case
Convicts in the 2002 Ode massacre case wave to their relatives from a police vehicle as they leave the special fast track court in Anand on Monday. (Below) Their relatives react to the judgment. Photos: AFP & AP

A special fast track court here on Monday convicted 23 persons of murder, conspiracy and abetment to murder and acquitted 23 others in the 2002 Ode communal riot massacre in Gujarat.

District and Sessions Court judge Poonam Singh said the sentences would be announced on April 12.

The Ode riot — in which 24 people were burnt alive in two incidents by a mob on March 1 and 2, 2002 — was one of the nine cases investigated by the Supreme Court-appointed Special Investigation Team.

There were 47 accused, and one died during the trial. Section 120(B) of the Indian Penal Code (conspiracy) has been applied to all 23 convicted, while 18 have also been convicted of the charge of murder, four of abetment to crime and one of unlawful activities.

According to the prosecution, a 1,500-strong mob gathered in Ode village on March 1, 2002, and started throwing stones and damaging the property of the people in the minority community-dominated Suriewali Bhagol. A handful of policemen present lobbed teargas shells and then opened fire to disperse the mob. The people dispersed, but the death of a boy, Nishith, in the police firing sparked tension.

The rioters soon regrouped and turned their ire on the police. The police picket was virtually overrun by the mob; two policemen were seriously injured and the remaining four or five were chased out. The mob later gheraoed the Muslim residents at Pirawali Bhagol, where they took shelter in a three-storey building. The mob bolted the main door of the building from outside, threw in petrol and kerosene in water pouches and then torches, setting the entire building ablaze

A few managed to jump out and escape and later became eyewitnesses, but 23 of them perished. The next day, as a mob conducted the funeral procession of Nishith, it set fire to some shops and vehicles of the minority community. An 80-year-old Muslim unfortunately came in their way, trying to save his goats. The mob threw him into the fire, caused by the burning vehicles.

While the Mumbai-based Citizens for Justice and Peace welcomed the judgment and thanked the “courage and sacrifices” of the witnesses for standing up despite heavy odds, the State government spokesman and Health Minister, Jaynarayan Vyas, said the judgment was a “slap” in the face of those who “relentlessly tried to defame Gujarat, the State government and the State police” as well as the SIT, raising questions about the impartiality in the investigation of the riot cases.

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