x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Indian court convicts 23 over Gujarat riot massacre

Nine women and nine children were among victims of a torching of a house in 2002 during religious clashes the western Indian state.

NEW DELHI // A decade after religious violence swept through the western Indian state of Gujarat, killing more than 2,000 people, a special trial court yesterday convicted 23 people for massacring nearly two dozen Muslims in the village of Ode.

Twenty-three more were acquitted.

The public prosecutor called the case "rarest of rare" because of the brutality of the killers, who targeted women and children.

Violence broke out in the village of Ode, where a mob of 1,500 rioters bolted the doors of a house where Muslim families had taken refuge and then set it on fire by hurling plastic pouches filled with petrol and kerosene.

This event, which sparked a series of communal killings, has since become known as the Ode massacre.

Special public prosecutor, PN Parmar said the court planned to come out with a stiff sentence to punish the "heinous crime" of burning to death nine women, nine children and five men.

Of the 23 found guilty, 18 were convicted for murder and criminal conspiracy and five for attempted murder and criminal conspiracy. Another 23 were acquitted for lack of evidence. Most of those who stood trial were Hindus.

The sentences will be announced this week. The Ode incident was part of what became known as the Gujarat riots.

Religious violence broke out in the town of Godhra in Gujarat in March 2002 after a train was set alight. killing almost 60 Hindu pilgrims returning from the holy city of Ayodhya. This prompted a retaliation by Hindu mobs who claimed the train fire was premeditated by Muslims.

More than 2,000 people, most of them Muslims, were beaten or burnt to death.

The riots were some of the worst in post-independence India.

The Supreme Court criticised the state government's investigation and prosecution and ordered a special investigation after allegations the state police failed to protect and even helped attacks on Muslims.

India's highest court then appointed special teams to look into the massacre in the village of Ode and nine other incidents related to the riots.

This is the third judgement in connection with the riots. In two other judgements last year, 31 people, all Hindus, were sentenced to life in prison for burning to death 39 Muslims.

In February, last year, a special court in Gujarat also found 31 people guilty of setting fire to the passenger train carrying Hindu pilgrims - the event that sparked the Ode massacre. It acquitted 63 other people of conspiracy and murder.

Gujarat's chief minister is Narendra Modi and the state is governed by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Mr Modi's critics have accused him of encouraging the communal violence. Mr Modi has denied the allegations but he has also never apologised for the violence.

After yesterday's verdict, the BJP said they welcomed the decision of the special court. BJP leader Balbir Punj said justice has been handed to the victims.

"Today the decision of the court came," Mr Punj told reporters in Gujarat's main city, Ahmedabad. "It is a victory of people of Gujarat. Justice is done in Gujarat. It is the slap on the face of those people who said justice cannot be done in Gujarat. Today every India must be proud that fair justice happened in Gujarat."

sbhattacharya@thenational.ae

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