This is perhaps the first case in the country in which 11 people have been awarded capital punishment, special public prosecutor JM Panchal said after the sentencing. The death penalty will have to be confirmed by the High Court.
The 31 have been convicted for conspiring to attack the S-6 coach of Sabarmati Express on February 27, 2002, killing 59 people on board. In his judgment on February 22, Judge PR Patel had acquitted 63 others, including prime accused Maulvi Hussain Umarji.
The life imprisonment of the 20 would be measured taking into account the time the convicts have already spent in jail, during investigation and trial. The 20 have also been slapped with a fine of Rs 17,300 each for various offences and would have to undergo imprisonment for one more year in default.
The 31 have been convicted for various charges under the Indian Penal Code, Prevention of Damages to Public Property Act, Indian Railways Act and Bombay Police Act. The charges include murder and criminal conspiracy.
The prosecution had demanded death for all the 31, on the ground that this was a case falling under the category of rarest of the rare. Special Public Prosecutor Panchal claimed the train burning was pre-planned, and stressed that none of the victims had any animosity with the accused.
He had also made a point about the place of attack, saying it was chosen carefully to ensure the victims could get little help.
Asked whether he would appeal against the life term for 20, Panchal said: That decision will be taken only after going through the judgment.
Seeking minimal punishment, the defence lawyers had cited mitigating circumstances and also urged the court to consider their age and socio-economic conditions. Questioning the conspiracy theory, they had cited the alleged misbehaviour by the kar sevaks travelling on the train, which they claimed provoked the attack.
The death sentence is not final. It is subject to confirmation by the Gujarat High Court, one of the main defence lawyers, A A Hasan, said, adding that one had to accept the verdict by the judiciary.
Health minister Jaynarayan Vyas, the spokesperson of the government, welcomed the verdict, saying that the state government had always maintained that the train attack was a pre-conceived conspiracy. But we also respect the court decision to release 63 of the accused. The court did its job, and we respect its judgement.