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Death sentences for Indian train burners

NEW DELHI, March 2 (UPI) -- An Indian court handed down death penalties to 11 of 31 people convicted of burning a train carriage in which 59 passengers died.

The other 20 people convicted were given life sentences in what presiding Judge P.R. Patel said was one or India's "rarest of rare" cases.

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The sentencing ends the so-called Godhra train burning trial of 94 people that began in June 2009.

On Feb. 22, 63 of the defendants were acquitted when the court determined prosecutors failed to prove a conspiracy. Among those acquitted was Maulvi Umarji, a local politician whom prosecutors claimed was the leader of the arsonist mob.

RELATED 11 sentenced to death in deadly train fire

The court, however, found 31 people guilty of being actively involved in stockpiling gasoline and burning the train carriage. The motive was "anger against the kar sevaks," the court said.

A kar sevak can refer to someone who often visits the historic Hindu holy site Ram Janmabhoomi, the former site of the Babri Mosque in Ayodhya, in the state of Uttar Pradesh. The Babri Mosque was destroyed in 1992 when a political rally developed into a riot involving 150,000 people.

The 31 convicted suspects will appeal their sentence and have 90 days to do so.

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"It (the punishment) is very difficult to swallow," defense counsel I. M. Munshi said. "We will definitely appeal against the verdict in the High Court. Till the High Court confirms the judgment, it cannot be implemented."

The trial of the February 2002 tragedy has been highly emotional because of religious sensitivities. A special court was set up in the Sabarmati Central Jail -- Gujarat's largest prison -- for security reasons.

In Godhra City, in the state of Gujarat, the Sabarmati Express train was returning from the city of Ayodhya, a holy place for Hindus, when it was forcibly stopped and attacked by a large Muslim mob. During the attack, 59 Hindu pilgrims, including women, children and elderly people, died in a fire when a car in the train was set ablaze.

The ensuing violence over 48 hours claimed the lives of nearly 800 Muslims and more than 250 Hindus. Around 520 people were reported missing and have since been declared dead.

Hundreds of mosques and Hindu temples, as well as three churches, were destroyed or damaged. Authorities also said hundreds of Muslim-owned businesses were damaged. Around 61,000 Muslims and 10,000 Hindus fled their homes and thousands of people were arrested in a police crackdown in the aftermath.

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