AHMEDABAD: Six years after a trial court punished her for 28 years in jail calling her the key instigator in Gujarat's worst communal massacre that left 97 Muslims dead in 2002 in Ahmedabad's Naroda Patiya, the Gujarat High Court on Friday acquitted former Gujarat minister Maya Kodnani saying there was no evidence to nail her.
A Division Bench of the High Court comprising Justice Harsha Devani and Justice A.S. Supehia acquitted her, stating there was absence of sufficient proof of her presence at the crime scene where huge armed crowds went about on a killing spree for hours.
A SIT Court had in 2012 found it "beyond reasonable doubt" that Kodnani, a doctor by profession, was present at the spot of the crime, instigated mobs to attack Muslims and abetted the crime.
"In the record of this case, the witnesses have stated that all the disturbances were started and in fact reached its peak after the arrival of Kodnani. It stands proved beyond all reasonable doubt that she was present and participated in the crime on that day," the court had ruled in August 2012, sentencing Kodnani to 28 years in imprisonment.
Friday's acquittal of Kodnani, who was made a Minister after the riots, came in the backdrop of witnesses turning hostile, six judges recusing themselves from the hearing and the SIT deciding not to seek enhancement of her sentence stating that it did not have the Gujarat government's sanction for it.
BJP President Amit Shah's testimony in the case in September 2017 was the last one and could have proved to be the much needed alibi for Kodnani. He stated that he saw Kodnani in the Gujarat Assembly on 28 February, 2002 (the day of the massacre), first at 8.30 a.m. and then again at 11 a.m.
The Gujarat Assembly is located in Gandhinagar and so the former minister could not have been at Naroda Patiya on the day of the riots.
However, the SIT Court had refused to consider this as evidence stating that Gandhinagar and Ahmedabad were like twin cities and that Kodnani could have easily travelled to Naroda Patiya from the state Assembly after 8.30 a.m.
However, the High Court acquitted her with several witnesses turning hostile and there was insufficient evidence to establish her presence at the place of the crime.
The court meanwhile upheld the conviction of Babu Bajrangi, an activist of the Bajrang Dal. The judgment was pronounced on the appeals filed by the former BJP Minister and others against their conviction by the SIT court. He was the key conspirator in the massacre.
The Naroda Patiya riots was one of the worst incidents during the communal conflagration that engulfed Gujarat following the train burning incident on February 27, 2002 at Godhra in which 59 Hindus were killed.
The High Court in August 2017 had reserved its order.
The special court had sentenced 32 people, including Kodnani and Bajrangi. Seven others were given enhanced life imprisonment of 21 years, which they will serve after undergoing 10 years' imprisonment under IPC section 326 (causing grievous hurt).
The remaining accused were given simple life imprisonment of 14 years. The trial court's acquittal of 29 other accused in the case, for want of evidence, was challenged by the SIT, even as those convicted challenged the lower court's order in the High Court for respite.
Government counsel Prashant Desai said: "It is clear from the Gujarat High Court's judgment that the court has gone on no witness theory.
"Twelve accused have been convicted. Besides Babu Bajrangi, Prakash Rathod and Suresh Chara alias Suresh Langda have been convicted under the IPC 120 (B) as key conspirators.
"The sting operation by the Tehelka was not taken into account by the court. The 12 have been convicted with 21 years imprisonment without remission.
"Whatever Babu Bajrangi did was no different from what the others did, so his conviction was on parity. Court believed police witnesses.
"On Kodnani, there were contradictions in the witnesses' testimony against her presence at the crime scene. None of the police witnesses have said that they saw Kodnani at the scene.
"The SIT will have to appeal within 90 days to the Supreme Court if they want to challenge the Gujarat High Court verdict," added the counsel.
Deputy Chief Minister Nitin Patel said: "Our Minister Kodnani was wrongfully implicted in the Naroda Patiya massacre case. But today she has been found innocent.
"We are happy with the verdict and welcome the decision. She has worked hard for the party and definitely she will be given an active role in the party if she wishes to continue."
Meanwhile, the state BJP President Jitu Vaghani has blamed the Congress for arraigning Kodnani in the case. "The Congress wrongfully involved our former minister."