22 Feb 2007 Source: Reuters
By Jonathan Allen
NEW DELHI, Feb 22 (Reuters) – Nearly 90 Muslim men accused of triggering one of India's worst religious riots are to be allowed to seek bail after nearly five years in jail without trial, India's Supreme Court ruled on Thursday.
The 87 men were accused of starting a fire on a train in February 2002 in Godhra, a town in the western state of Gujarat, in which 59 Hindu pilgrims died, sparking a month of deadly communal violence.
They were charged and detained under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA), but have remained behind bars even though the act was subsequently repealed.
A government committee ordered that pending POTA trials in Gujarat be abandoned in favour of normal criminal proceedings, while Amnesty International and other human rights groups have condemned the continued detentions.
"This ruling means the first chance of liberty for persons who were wrongly put inside under this draconian regime," Colin Gonsalves, a lawyer from the Delhi-based Human Rights Law Network, told Reuters outside the court.
The train fire sparked a month of rioting in the Hindu-majority state in which, rights groups say, around 2,500 people, mostly Muslims, were burned and hacked to death. Officials say the death toll was less than half that.
The Supreme Court has said the state government led by the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was complicit in the riots. Critics say the government remains anti-Muslim and is not interested in prosecuting Hindu rioters.
"In a state where 3,000 Muslims were killed, to overwhelmingly have only Muslims put in jail under POTA is a shocking case of discrimination," said Gonsalves.
But Hemantika Wahi, the standing counsel for Gujarat, said the state was welcoming to minority groups, but defended the disproportionately high number of Muslim POTA detainees.
"Not all Muslims are terrorists but all terrorists are Muslims," she said.
She said Gujarat stood by the Gujarat High Court's ruling that the government committee's decision that Gujarat POTA cases should be handled through criminal proceedings was not binding and that POTA trials could proceed.
The high court's ruling continues to be disputed in the Supreme Court. (Additional reporting by Samanwaya Rautray)