The head of India's ruling party has been acquitted of three murder charges in a verdict immediately denounced by the opposition.

Amit Shah, the closest aide of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and chief of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), was cleared by a special court of the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) on Tuesday of ordering police to carry out the extrajudicial killings of a gangster - Sohrabuddin Sheikh, his wife and his friend - when he served as home minister under Modi in the state of Gujarat almost a decade ago, Shah's lawyer, Mitesh Amin, said.

Shah’s lawyer said his client was acquitted due to lack of evidence.

The opposition Congress, ousted in the national polls by the BJP, alleged there had been "government pressure" on the CBI to clear Shah. The CBI has become "chained, caged and totally immobilised", said Congress spokesman Ajoy Kumar.

Shah was made the BJP president in July as he awaited trial, two months after helping Modi to become the prime minister.

Ruling to be challenged

Party workers have praised Shah as an efficient administrator, whose sharp political mind has helped him win nearly every election he has overseen in the last three decades.

Rubabuddin Sheikh, the brother of one of the victims, said his family would challenge the ruling. "Amit Shah has wrongly been protected and we will challenge the court's order in the high court," Sheikh said.

India's top law enforcement agency, the CBI, had accused Shah of running an extortion racket with police officers and Sheikh while holding the top law-and-order position in Gujarat.

Shah and Sheikh fell out and police snatched Sheikh from a bus with his wife in 2005, the CBI said in a charge sheet. Sheikh was then killed in a staged gun battle and his wife's cremated body was later found in the village of one of the policemen, the report said.  

The Gujarat government later admitted all three murders were staged, according to court documents.

Police officers remain on trial for the killings.

Source: Agencies