February 6, 2008 / 12:09 AM / 10 years ago

After Indian riots, Muslim men stuck in legal limbo

GODHRA, India (Reuters) - Nearly 90 Muslim men are waiting in an Indian jail for a trial that may never happen, under a law that no longer exists, accused of triggering one of India’s worst religious riots in Gujarat in 2002.

Gujarat state’s Hindu-nationalist leaders accuse these 87 men of coldly plotting to burn Hindu pilgrims to death as their train passed through a station in the town of Godhra.

Their defenders say some of the accused men were provoked into a spontaneous fight that spiraled into an accidental fire -- the same conclusion reached by a central government investigation -- while others were not even at the scene.

Either way, human rights activists, including Amnesty International, condemn the legal limbo in which they languish, detained under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA) that was repealed in 2004.

On Tuesday, the prisoners’ bail hearing at the Supreme Court was delayed for the ninth time, lawyers said.

The Godhra train fire led to riots in Gujarat in which around 2,500 people, mostly Muslims, were shot, burned and hacked to death, according to rights activists’ figures.

Only one Hindu rioter was ever detained under POTA, and was subsequently released on bail, defense lawyers say.

Hundreds of Hindu rioters were arrested on normal criminal charges during and shortly after the riots and scores have been sentenced to crimes from murder downwards. But many have walked free, while others facing criminal charges have been freed on bail and even contested elections.

UNFAIRLY TREATED?

The case of the 87 detainees has underscored a debate in India as to whether the Muslim minority has been unfairly treated by a justice system weighted in favor of the Hindu majority.

POTA was introduced in 2002 by the previous government led by the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, giving unusual powers to arrest and jail people on suspicion of terrorism.

Its critics say the law was abused to harass government opponents and minorities, and the Congress party repealed the law after winning power, although some of its controversial provisions have appeared elsewhere in Indian law.

In 2006, a central government committee ordered that pending POTA trials in Gujarat should be abandoned in favor of normal criminal proceedings.

But the Gujarat High Court ruled that the government committee’s decision was not legally binding -- a ruling that is now being challenged in the Supreme Court, further delaying justice for the accused men.

Meanwhile, many of the men’s families struggle without a breadwinner.

“I pray to God that my sons are released for my final rites,” said Nafisa Anwar.

The frail, blind widow says her sons, Shabir and Alauddin, were baking biscuits in their mud hut in Godhra when they were arrested. She says they are innocent of all charges.

“I have been waiting for over five years to hear their voice and touch them,” she said.

Anwar lives in penury, her possessions amounting to little more than three plastic plates, a leaking pitcher and tattered clothes.

FAMILY STRUGGLES

Noorja Khan, a neighbor of Anwar‘s, also struggles. Khan, 23, was pregnant with her first child when police arrested her husband along with his three brothers.

“My daughter cannot recognize her father. My husband says he is without hope and thinks he will die in jail,” said Khan.

All 87 men are in Ahmedabad’s main jail. Relatives are allowed to visit once a month, but many don’t have the money for frequent trips.

For five years Khan and her sister-in-law have worked as domestic maids in a Hindu household, feeding their children with leftover food from their employers.

They speak contemptuously of the state’s controversial chief minister, Narendra Modi, who was re-elected in December.

“Does he even know that we exist and have a right to justice?” asked Noorja.

“Muslims will have to live and die in fear in Gujarat,” says 30-year-old Syed Umarji, son of Maulana Hasan Umarji, who was arrested and accused of being one of the prime conspirators by the state.

Mukul Sinha, a lawyer representing some of the Muslim prisoners, says Modi’s government is not interested in giving the accused Muslims a fair trial.

Lawyers representing Hindus and the Gujarat state dispute this, but some add a proviso.

“Yes, we have a bias,” said S.T. Trivedi, who represents families of the Hindu pilgrims who died in the Godhra fire. “Not all Muslims are terrorists, but all terrorists are Muslims.”

Editing by Jonathan Allen and Alex Richardson

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