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Indian Court Sentences 11 to Death for Role in 2002 Godhra Train Fire

Public Prosecutor Rajendra Tiwari (L) addresses media representatives following the verdict on the 2002 Godhra train incident at the special court inside the Sabarmati Central Jail in Ahmedabad

An Indian court has handed down one of the largest number of death sentences given at any one time in the country's history. The death sentences follow dozens of convictions, earlier this month, in connection to a deadly 2002 arson attack against a train loaded with Hindu pilgrims.

In one of the highest profile cases of India's modern history, Prosecutor J.M. Panchal summarized the sentence handed down by a court Tuesday in the Indian state, Gujarat.

"Eleven persons have been awarded capital punishment. That is their sentence. Another 20 persons have been awarded life imprisonment," Panchal said.

The 31 men, all Muslims, were convicted earlier this month on charges of conspiracy and murder in connection with the 2002 burning of a train car in the Gujarati town of Godhra - 59 people burned to death in that incident. Most of them were Hindu pilgrims returning from the northern city, Ayodha - where, 10 years earlier, extreme Hindus had destroyed a mosque in a decades-long property dispute.

Weeks of rioting and violence in Gujarat followed the train fire, killing about 1,000 people, mainly Muslims. The episode is seen here in India as one of the darkest chapters in a regional history fraught with Hindu-Muslim tension.

The cause of the train fire has been widely disputed. However, prosecutors convinced the court that convicted the 31 men, earlier this month, that the fire was the end goal of a conspiracy. Prosecutor Panchal says, in Tuesday's session, the court agreed the heinous nature of the attack merited the large number of death sentences.

"In so far [as the] 11 accused persons are concerned, their case falls under the category of rarest of the rare case, looking to the part played by the accused persons in the crime," he said.

Both sides have 90 days to appeal Tuesday's sentencing. Defense lawyers say they hope to overturn both the death sentences and the life imprisonment sentences. Prosecution lawyers are likely to push for toughening the life imprisonments to sentences of death.