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The New York Times
24 Convicted in Massacre of Muslims During Gujarat Riots in India
By ELLEN BARRYJUNE 2, 2016
Vehicles on fire in Ahmedabad, India, on Feb. 28, 2002, the day 69 Muslims, mostly women and children, died in a compound set ablaze by thousands of Hindu men armed with stones, iron rods and bombs.Manish Swarup/Associated Press
NEW DELHI — Twenty-four people were found guilty on Thursday of massacring Muslims during the 2002 religious riots that tore through Gujarat, a state then led by Narendra Modi, who is now India’s prime minister.
A judge in Ahmedabad, Gujarat’s largest city, acquitted 36 people for lack of evidence, including a police inspector and a midranking official in the Bharatiya Janata Party, led by Mr. Modi.
The verdict, the latest in more than a dozen prosecutions arising from the riots, did not implicate officials who were working under Mr. Modi’s authority at the time, or indeed any prominent leaders. But it was a reminder of a bloody episode that the prime minister has taken great pains to put behind him. On trips abroad, including one to the United States next week, Mr. Modi will probably face more questions about communal violence and the far-right agenda advanced by some in his party.
Two more cases stemming from the Gujarat riots, in which about 1,000 people were killed over the course of two months, are still pending. One of those cases, brought by the widow of Ehsan Jafri, a former member of Parliament killed in the attacks, seeks to establish that the riots were the result of a high-level conspiracy involving Mr. Modi.
The case Thursday involved the attack in which Mr. Jafri was killed, on Feb. 28, 2002, one of the worst episodes of the Gujarat riots. A crowd of Muslims, mostly women and children, had taken shelter in a compound in Ahmedabad from a mob of thousands of Hindu men armed with stones, iron rods and bombs.
Witnesses said that for hours, Mr. Jafri, who lived in the compound, made frantic calls to city officials asking for police protection. But the compound was already on fire when the police arrived in force, and the people inside died of burns and smoke inhalation. Sixty-nine people died.
Of the 24 people convicted Thursday, 11 were found guilty of murder, which brings a minimum punishment of life in prison and a possible death sentence, according to lawyers who emerged from the courthouse on Thursday. Others were convicted of lesser charges, including arson and looting. Sentences will be announced on Monday.
A spokesman for Mr. Modi’s party expressed satisfaction with the verdict because it did not point to official involvement.
“There was so much of a witch hunt against the current prime minister, and in that sense I am happy,” said the spokeswoman, Shaina Nana Chudasama. “If we move on as a society united, rather than distinguishing who is from B.J.P. or another party, we would be doing ourselves and the victims a great service.”
Teesta Setalvad, an activist who has spearheaded a campaign to prosecute Gujarat officials, called Thursday’s verdict “hugely disappointing” because the judge did not cast the riot as a conspiracy.
“When you have a mob of 66 accused, then common intent is already established,” she said. “That means at a local level, there was a conspiracy.” Several of the original defendants in the case have died since the proceedings began.
The Gujarat riots began on a February morning, when a train carrying Hindu pilgrims was surrounded by a crowd and caught fire at a train platform in Godhra, which has a large Muslim population. The remains of 59 people burned to death on the train were displayed in Ahmedabad, stoking anti-Muslim fury.
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Riots occurred sporadically for two months after that, with little interference from the state police.
At the time, Mr. Modi was accused by some of failing to deploy security forces to stop the killing. In 2005, the United States took the unusual step of imposing a visa ban on him for his role in the riots, and high-ranking officials from the United States and some European countries would not meet with him for almost a decade.
Since then, though, the memory of those events has receded. In 2013, an Indian court rejected a petition to prosecute Mr. Modi over the riots, on the grounds that there was not sufficient evidence to proceed. Mr. Modi’s party swept into power nationally after a campaign that focused heavily on economic development, and he has styled himself as a progressive, internationalist leader.
That effort may be damaged by Thursday’s verdict. “It suddenly brings back Mr. Modi of 2002, the person with dirty hands,” said Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay, the author of a biography of the leader. “It weakens Mr. Modi’s claim to be the leader of a pluralistic India.”
Rupa Mody, a survivor of the episode, said she had hoped for more convictions. In a telephone interview, she described holding hands with her daughter and 13-year-old son, huddled together inside the compound, while people in the crowd outside threw gasoline in.
“Lots of people were fainting,” she said. “I also fell. Then somebody egged me on to get up and run.”
While running, she said, “I fell, and my daughter stooped to help, and in the process, she lost hold of my son’s hand. In the chaos that ensued, I lost him.” Though the police later displayed a number of children’s bodies, she said, they were so badly burned that she could not recognize him.
Follow Ellen Barry on Twitter @EllenBarryNYT.
Suhasini Raj contributed reporting.