|Narendra Modi has denied allegations by rights groups that he tacitly supported the rioters [Reuters]|
A court in India has sentenced 31 people to life in prison over the killings of 33 Muslims in a single house during severe sectarian riots in the state of Gujarat in 2002.
The 31 defendants, all Hindus, were found guilty of murder, attempted murder, arson, rioting and criminal conspiracy after the victims were burned alive in the building.
“Out of the 73 accused, 31 are guilty and 42 are acquitted of all charges,” judge SC Srivastava told the special court near Sardarpura village, where the 33 Muslims sought shelter in a small house on the night of February 28, 2002.
The victims had crowded into the house to escape the rioters, who set the building alight. Authorities uncovered 28 bodies at the scene, with five others dying later of their injuries.
During the violence in the western state of Gujarat, witnesses said baying Hindu mobs surrounded and raped Muslim women, then poured kerosene down their throats and on their children and threw lit matches at them.
Wednesday’s verdicts followed earlier convictions over riot-related violence.
In some of India’s worst inter-faith clashes since independence in 1947, about 2,000 people died in a wave of anti-Muslim unrest triggered by a train fire in which 60 Hindu pilgrims were burnt alive.
The case is one of nine trials being held in India in connection with the violence following the train fire, and is one of the first in which convictions have been secured.
The Hindu pilgrims on the train were returning from the town of Ayodhya, another flashpoint for religious unrest after a mosque was destroyed in 1992 by Hindus, leading to separate riots that killed thousands of people, mostly Muslims.
Dispute over responsibility
Wednesday’s verdicts, which come after years of accusations that authorities dragged their heels in prosecuting Hindus, split activists campaigning for justice.
“This is the first time in 60 years that so many people have been convicted in a case of communal violence,” Teesta Setelvad, secretary of the Citizens for Justice and Peace (CJP) group, told the NDTV news channel.
|About 2,000 people were killed during the riots [EPA]|
“It is wrong to say that the big ones have been let off. All the accused in the case are big agriculturists, land owners and influential people.”
But other groups representing riot victims said the 42 acquittals due to lack of evidence revealed how many offenders would never been punished.
“So many of them had been identified but still they were not convicted,” said activist Sandhya Gokhale, vowing further efforts to pursue the guilty.
Responsibility for the train fire has been the subject of fierce dispute between Hindus and Muslims, but in March this year a court handed 11 death sentences and 20 life terms to Muslims convicted over the blaze.
The government of Gujarat, which is still headed by Hindu nationalist chief minister Narendra Modi, was accused by rights groups of tacitly supporting the rioters.
State authorities were also accused of dragging their heels in prosecuting Hindus over the riots.
Modi, who is seen by many in the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party as a future candidate for prime minister, denies all accusations about his handling of the riots and has never apologised for the violence.