AHMEDABAD, India // An Indian court on Friday sentenced a former state minister to a minimum 28 years in jail for her role in instigating the worst massacre during deadly religious riots in Gujarat in 2002.
Maya Kodnani, who served as a minister in Gujarat's Hindu nationalist state government from 2007-2009, was sentenced to "enhanced life imprisonment" over the killing of 97 Muslims in the Naroda Patiya suburb of the city of Ahmedabad.
Principal judge Jyotsna Yagnik called the former minister "the kingpin of the religious riots" and awarded her a ten-year and 18-year sentence for murder and other charges including inciting religious hatred.
Yagnik said 57-year-old Kodnani, who was an ally and former minister from 2007-2009 under Gujarat's long-standing Chief Minister Narendra Modi, was guilty of "instigating mobs and provoking unlawful assembly.
"In a way she has helped the entire crime," she said.
Kodnani was among 32 people convicted on Wednesday of murder and taking part in the riots. Of them, seven others received sentences of 31 years minimum, while 22 got standard life sentences of 14 years.
A leader of a local extremist Hindu group, Babu Bajrangi, who was filmed by an Indian news magazine in 2007 describing setting families on fire, was also awarded an enhanced life sentence until death.
One convict has absconded and will be sentenced once caught, defence and prosecution lawyers told AFP.
Modi's proximity to Kodnani is an embarrassment for a politician widely thought to have prime ministerial ambitions but whose reputation was tarnished by the blood-letting in 2002 only a few months after he was elected.
The 61-year-old from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), who is unable to gain a visa to the United States because of the riots, has been widely criticised for failing to stop them, but has consistently denied charges of wrong-doing.
The violence was triggered by the deaths of nearly 60 Hindu pilgrims in a February 2002 train fire that was initially blamed on a mob of Muslims.
Hindus hungry for revenge rampaged through Muslim neighbourhoods across Gujarat in an orgy of violence that marked some of India's worst religious riots since independence from Britain in 1947.
Human rights groups say more than 2,000 people, mainly Muslims, were hacked, beaten or burned to death, while government figures put the death toll at about 1,000.
More than 100 others have been convicted for killing Muslims during the riots.
In 2008, the Supreme Court ordered the re-investigation of nine of the most sensitive incidents during the riots, including the initial train fire and the violence in Naroda Patiya.
Bajrangi, in a taped interview, confessed to helping orchestrate the killing in Naroda Patiya where homes were set on fire and some Muslims were set ablaze while hiding in a pit.
"In Naroda and Naroda Patiya, we didn't spare a single Muslim shop, we set everything on fire, we set them on fire and killed them," he said, according to a transcript available online.