The Gujarat high court on Friday acquitted former Bharatiya Janata Party minister Maya Kodnani but upheld the conviction of former Bajrang Dal leader Babu Bajrangi in the 2002 Naroda Patiya riot case in which 97 people were killed by a mob.
The high court upheld conviction of 13 people including Bajrangi, and convicted another three for the first time, while acquitting 18 of the 32 people convicted by the trial court in 2012.
In 2002, Kodnani was a BJP MLA and the trial court had said she was the 'kingpin' of the Naroda Patiya killings, one of the worst incidents of violence during the Gujarat riots, and sentenced her to 28 years in jail.
Kodnani went on to become a minister in then Narendra Modi government in Gujarat in 2007, before resigning when she was arrested in the case in March 2009.
Acquitting her, the high court said the statements made by witnesses regarding her role were contradictory. No prosecution witness mentioned that she talked to them at the relevant time, the high court noted.
The high court said it finds it 'hazardous' to rely on contradictory statements of witnesses, and therefore, no testimony of witnesses regarding Kodnani was accepted.
The trial court had convicted her for a criminal conspiracy under section 120 (B) of the Indian Penal Code, but the evidence didn't establish the charge, the high court said.
Kodnani was also given the benefit of doubt as she was made an accused for the first time in 2008 by the Special Investigation Team (SIT), while her name did not figure in the original first information report, the high court said.
Delivering the verdict on a set of appeals filed in connection with the 2012 judgement of the special SIT court, the division bench of Justices Harsha Devani and A S Supahia on Friday convicted 16 people including Bajrangi, and acquitted 18 others, including Kodnani.
Out of the 16 convicts, all except one have been sentenced to 21 years of rigorous imprisonment. One person has been sentenced to 10 years' imprisonment.
Three of these had been acquitted by the trial court.
Out of the 61 accused in the case, the special SIT court had, in August 2012, held 32 guilty, and acquitted 29. The high court on Friday acquitted 18 of the 32, and upheld conviction of 13.
One of those convicted by the trial court died.
The quantum of sentence of other three persons who were convicted for the first time on Friday will be pronounced on May 9, the division bench said.
The high court found Bajrangi guilty of criminal conspiracy along with two other convicts, Prakash Rathod and Suresh Jhala. Their conviction was based on the statements of five witnesses who said the three were present at the crime site.
The high court said it was accepting the oral evidence of journalist Ashish Khetan, who had carried out a sting operation on these three convicts.
The court said it did not accept the findings of the sting operation, but relied upon five witnesses whose consistent statements established that Bajrangi was present at the site of the incident throughout the day.
The court, however, reduced Bajrangi's sentence from "jail till his natural life" to 21 years' rigorous imprisonment, for maintaining parity with punishment given to other convicts.
The high court said it analysed the convictions on the basis of testimonies of two credible witnesses for each accused.
Coming down heavily on the Gujarat government which had sought enhancement of sentences of convicts, the court said, "You just indulge in lip service".
The state hadn't opposed release of the accused on bail, but 'now you are asking for enhancement of their sentences', the judges said, rejecting the state's appeal.
The trial court had sentenced seven accused to 31 years' rigorous imprisonment, while 22 others had been given 24 years in jail.
A mob killed 97 people, most of them from a minority community, in Naroda Patiya area of Ahmedabad on February 28, 2002, a day after the torching of the Sabarmati Express at Godhra which triggered state-wide riots.
Photograph: PTI Photo