An Indian court on Thursday acquitted 69 Hindus, including a former minister from the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), of the murder of 11 Muslims during communal riots in the western state of Gujarat in 2002.
The killings occurred in Ahmedabad on February 28, 2002, a day after a suspected Muslim mob set fire to a train carrying Hindu pilgrims, setting off one of independent India’s worst outbreaks of religious bloodshed.
A total of 86 Hindus were accused of the killings in the Naroda Gam district of Ahmedabad, 17 of whom died during trial. All the accused were free on bail.
“We have been saying from the first day that they were framed,” defense lawyer Chetan Shah, who represented 82 of the accused, said. “Some of the accused were not present at the scene on the day of the incident.”
Shamshad Pathan, who represented the victims, said they would challenge the court’s decision in a higher court.
“Justice has eluded the victims once again. We will study the grounds on which the court has acquitted the accused persons,” Pathan said.
Those acquitted include Maya Kodnani, a former minister of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s BJP, who was a lawmaker at the time of the riots, former Bajrang Dal leader Babu Bajrangi, and Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) leader Jaydeep Patel.
Bajrang Dal and VHP are Hindu nationalist groups and have close links to the BJP.
Kodnani was also an accused in a case in which 97 people were killed in the 2002 riots. She was convicted but later acquitted by a higher court.
At least 1,000 people, mostly Muslims, were killed across Gujarat in the 2002 riots. Activists put the toll at over twice that number.
Critics accused Modi, who was chief minister at the time, of failing to protect Muslims. Modi denied the allegations and a Supreme Court-ordered investigation found no evidence to prosecute him.
The acquittal comes eight months after 11 men jailed for life for the gang-rape of a pregnant Muslim woman during the riots were freed on remission, according to Reuters, drawing condemnation from the victim’s widower, lawyers and politicians.
The men were convicted in early 2008 and released from jail in Panchmahals in the western state of Gujarat on August 15, when India celebrated 75 years since the end of British rule.
Panchmahals’ top bureaucrat told Reuters that the district jail advisory committee had recommended the release after considering the time the 11 had spent in jail and their good behavior.