The attack, which the court ruled was an act stemming from a criminal conspiracy, triggered the subsequent communal riots in Gujarat, in which some 1,200 people were killed.
Special trial judge P R Patel acquitted 63 others who were chargesheeted. They include Maulvi Umarji, the prime accused. The pronouncement of the judgment started at around 11 am and lasted for half an hour.
The judgment was read out inside the high-security Sabarmati Central Jail today. The sentencing is scheduled for February 25. The minimum punishment the guilty could be given is life imprisonment; the maximum, death.
The court ruled that the fire in coach S-6 of the Sabarmati Express was started after a criminal conspiracy hatched by the convicts to kill the passengers inside. A total 94 persons faced trial under the Indian Penal Code, Indian Railways Act, Prevention of Damage to the Public Property Act and the Bombay Police Act. The accused were charged with pulling the chain of the train at Godhra station, pelting the train with stones near Signal Faliya, throwing burning rags and petrol inside the coach, cutting the canvas of the vestibule, forcibly entering the coach and dousing it with petrol. They were also accused of collecting 140 litres of petrol on the night of February 26, 2002, and hiding it behind a local guest house, with the intention to attack the train the next day. The charge was that they hatched the conspiracy out of communal grudge against a particular community.
The main convicts include Haji Bilal, a former member of the Godhra Nagarpalika and Abdul Razak Kurkur, owner of Aman Guest House. Besides Maulana Umarji, who was accused of instigating the others to set the train on fire, Mohammed Kalota, a former president of the Godhra Nagarpalika, was acquitted.
The trial was conducted inside Sabarmati Central Jail, as the state government had imposed Section 268 CrPC on the accused, restricting their mobility.
Special Public Prosecutor J M Panchal said the court had ordered the conviction of 31 accused on the basis of eyewitness accounts, testimony of railway employees, forensic evidence confirming the use of petrol, and circumstantial evidence. Asked if he was satisfied, Panchal said, There is no question of satisfaction... The court has given its verdict and we have to respect it.