A former Indian state minister was found guilty on Wednesday of murder in one of the country’s worst religious riots, the highest-profile conviction in a case that casts a shadow over the country 10 years on.
Human-rights groups say about 2,500 people, mostly Muslims, were hacked, beaten or burned to death in Gujarat state after a suspected Muslim mob burned alive 59 Hindu activists and pilgrims inside a train in February, 2002.
Prosecutors have demanded the death penalty for lawmaker Maya Kodnani, who was among a group charged with “beating, cutting down, burning alive and causing the deaths of women, men and children,” according to the charge sheet, in an episode of the Gujarat bloodletting known as the Naroda Patiya massacre.
Ms. Kodnani’s conviction comes as her Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party prepares for an election in the western state of Gujarat. Narendra Modi, leader of the economic powerhouse state, is often touted as a future prime minister.
One witness alleged that Ms. Kodnani, who became a minister in the state government five years after the riots, identified Muslim targets to be attacked and at one point fired a pistol.
The Congress Party, in office nationally, signalled the case would likely feature in its Gujarat election campaign, saying Ms. Kodnani’s conviction was proof of the BJP’s involvement in the riots. The BJP said the court ruling was proof that the state’s criminal justice system was free from bias.
The savagery of the killings still haunts a country that has witnessed many bouts of religious and ethnic violence since independence from Britain in 1947.
Mr. Modi, who was chief minister at the time of the riots, has been accused by critics of turning a blind eye to the violence. In an interview with The Wall Street Journal published on Wednesday, he said he saw no reason to apologize. “One only has to ask for forgiveness if one is guilty of a crime,” he said.
Ms. Kodnani and 31 others were convicted by the court in Ahmedabad, Gujarat’s main city, for their role in the episode in which 97 people were killed. The prosecutor, Akhil Desai, said he asked for death sentences for all. “If some of the accused are lucky enough to escape the death penalty,” he told reporters, “I will ask for life imprisonment, not for 14 years but for the rest of their lives.”