More than two decades after 11 Muslim community members were killed in the post-Godhra riots in Ahmedabad's Naroda Gam, a special court here on Thursday acquitted all the 67 accused in the case, including former Gujarat minister Maya Kodnani and ex-Bajrang Dal leader Babu Bajrangi.
While a lawyer of the victims' families said the judgement will be challenged before the Gujarat High Court because "justice was denied" to them, accused and their relatives termed the verdict, which came more than 21 years after the incident, as a "victory of truth".
The Ahmedabad-based court of S K Baxi, special judge for Special Investigation Team (SIT) cases, acquitted all the 67 accused in one of the worst massacres witnessed during the state-wide riots triggered by the Sabarmati train carnage on February 27, 2002, after a trial spanning 13 years and half a dozen judges. The Naroda Gam case was probed by a Supreme Court-appointed SIT.
A detailed judgement is expected to be made available in the coming days.
Those acquitted include former Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) minister in the Gujarat government Kodnani (67), former VHP leader Jaydeep Patel and ex-Bajrang Dal leader Babu Bajrangi.
There were a total of 86 accused in the case, of which 18 died during the pendency of the trial, while one was discharged by the court earlier under section 169 of the CrPC (Code of Criminal Procedure) due to insufficient evidence against him. The section relates to release of accused when evidence is deficient.
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All the 67 accused who were let off were already out on bail.
There were emotional scenes outside the court campus in Ahmedabad as relatives of the accused hugged each other and cried profusely after learning about the verdict. Some of the accused, after coming out of the court premises, raised slogans of 'Jai Shri Ram' and 'Bharat Mata Ki Jai'.
"I am grateful to God and the judiciary as justice has been done. We all were innocent and it has been proved before the court today. Our family members suffered a lot during the last 21 years. I am extremely happy and relieved the verdict came in our favour," said 49-year-old accused Samir Patel, tears rolling down his cheeks.
Another accused said the special court's ruling has "exposed" those who conspired to frame innocents like him. "The court has passed its order after studying all the aspects of the case. That the truth always wins has been proved again today," he said.
Reacting to her acquittal, Kodnani (67), who was a minister in the BJP government headed by then-Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi, said, "The truth has truly won today."
Notably, Kodnani and Babu Patel alias Babu Bajrangi were convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment by an SIT court in 2012 for the Naroda Patiya massacre case of 2002. The High Court had later acquitted Kodnani, but had upheld Bajrangi's conviction in the case in which 97 people were massacred.
Advocate Chetan Shah, who represented 82 out of the 86 accused, said he made sure "innocents" were acquitted for which he presented written arguments in the court running into 7,719 pages.
Advocate Shahshad Pathan, who represented the victims' families, said the acquittal order will be challenged in the High Court.
"We will study the grounds on which the special court decided to acquit all the accused and challenge the order in the High Court. It appears the victims have been denied justice. The question remains as to who burnt 11 persons to death in the presence of policemen?" Pathan told reporters.
The accused were booked under Indian Penal Code sections 302 (murder), 307 (attempt to murder), 143 (unlawful assembly), 147 (rioting), 148 (rioting armed with deadly weapons), 120 (B) (criminal conspiracy), and 153 (provocation for riots), among others. Riots broke out in the Naroda Gam area of Ahmedabad on February 28, 2002, during a bandh called to protest the torching of the S-6 coach of Sabarmati Express by a mob near Godhra station a day earlier. As many as 58 train passengers, mostly karsevaks returning from Ayodhya in Uttar Pradesh, were charred to death.
Then-BJP president Amit Shah, now Union Home Minister, had in September 2017 appeared in the trial court as a defence witness for Kodnani. Former BJP minister Kodnani had requested the court to summon Shah to prove her alibi that she was present in the Gujarat Assembly and later at Ahmedabad's Sola Civil Hospital, and not at Naroda Gam, where the massacre took place.
Six different judges have presided over the case. When the trial started in 2010, S H Vora was the presiding judge. He was later elevated to the Gujarat High Court. Special judges who subsequently handled the case included Jyotsna Yagnik, KK Bhatt and PB Desai, all of whom retired during the pendency of the trial.
Special judge MK Dave came next, but was transferred before the conclusion of the trial, advocate Chetan Shah said.
The massacre at Naroda Gam was one of the nine major 2002 communal riots cases investigated by the SC-appointed SIT and heard by special courts.
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