Naroda Patiya case: Kodnani walks free, 2 other CBI witnesses take a u-turn

A file photo of former Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) minister Maya Kodnani who has been acquitted by the Gujarat High Court in the 2002 Naroda Patiya riot case. Photo: PTI
Six years after a trial court sentenced former Gujarat minister Maya Kodnani to 28 years in jail, calling her the key instigator in Gujarat's worst communal massacre that left 97 Muslims dead in Ahmedabad's Naroda Patiya in 2002, the Gujarat High Court on Friday acquitted her citing lack of concrete evidence against her. A Division Bench of the High Court comprising Justice Harsha Devani and Justice A S Supehia acquitted Kodnani, stating there was an absence of sufficient proof of her presence at the crime scene where huge armed crowds went on a killing spree for hours in 2002. 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 reached the peak, in fact -- after the arrival of Kodnani. It stands proved beyond all reasonable doubt that she was present and she 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 became a minister after the riots, came against 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.

Naroda Patiya riot left 97 dead: The Naroda Patiya riot was one of the worst incidents that followed the Godhra train burning incident of February 27, 2002, in which 59 kar sevaks were killed. Around 58 people lost their lives when the S-6 coach of Sabarmati Express was allegedly torched at the Godhra Railway Station on February 27, 2002. Following the incident, on February 28, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and Bajrang Dal had declared a Gujarat Bandh. A total of 97 people were killed by rioters in Ahmedabad's Naroda Patiya area on this day.

Naroda Gam was one of the nine major 2002 communal riot cases that was investigated by the Supreme Court-appointed Special Investigation Team.

Here are the top 10 developments around the Naroda Patiya riot case, Maya Kodnani's acquittal in the absence of concrete evidence, and the Sohrabuddin Sheikh fake encounter case:

1. More CBI witnesses turn hostile in Sohrabuddin case: Two more prosecution witnesses on Friday turned hostile in the Sohrabuddin Shaikh and Tulsiram Prajapati alleged fake encounter cases, taking the number of witnesses who didn't support the CBI's case to 52. The court here has examined 76 witnesses so far. Rafique Hafiz and Firoze Khan, deposing before Special Judge S J Sharma here, said they had not given any statement to the CBI, contrary to the agency's claim. They said they had visited the agency's office only once and the CBI had taken down their names and addresses. Special public prosecutor B P Raju then declared them hostile.

2. BJP welcomes Gujarat HC's verdict: Deputy Chief Minister Nitin Patel said: "Our Minister Kodnani was wrongfully implicated 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."

ALSO READ: Naroda Gam riot case: Court issues notice to ex-IPS officer

3. Togadia delighted with the acquittal of Maya Kodnani: Firebrand Hindutva leader Pravin Togadia said the state government should not challenge the acquittal of Kodnani and others in the Supreme Court. "Hindu Advocate Forum" will provide legal help to Bajrangi and others, he said. "I express delight that Maya-ben and others have been acquitted. I would also demand that the government should not go to the Supreme Court to challenge the acquittals. Bajrangi and others who have been convicted should move the SC and we will arrange free legal aid for them. I would also ask the Gujarat government to go easy on their appeals," he said.

4. Babu Bajrangi's conviction upheld: The Gujarat High Court upheld the conviction of ex-Bajrang Dal leader Babu Bajrangi in the 2002 Naroda Patiya riot case in which 97 people were killed by a mob. The court found him guilty of criminal conspiracy (IPC section 120B) along with two other convicts Prakash Rathod and Suresh Jhala. The trial court had sentenced Bajrangi to life imprisonment till death. However, the HC today reduced his sentence to 21-year rigorous imprisonment without remission.

5. Who is Babu Bajrangi? Babu Bajrangi is former Bajrang Dal leader. He was accused of killing a  nine-month-pregnant woman Kausarbanu with a sword. Earlier, a witness said that Bajrangi removed a foetus from a victim and killed it after "swirling it on the tip of his sword" during the riots. A sting operation showed that he bragged about the brutal murder. However, a fast track court in 2012, rejected the theory that Bajrangi removed the foetus and bragged about it. Ms Yagnik said the evidence available before the court proved that Babu Bajrangi did kill the nine-months-pregnant woman Kausarbanu with a sword but that he could not have taken out the foetus.

Bajrangi had also named several other co-accused persons as participating in the gruesome massacre, on February 28, 2002 — a day after the Godhra train carnage, according to The Hindu.

6. 'Key conspirator' in Naroda Patiya massacre walks free: According to some eyewitness testimonies, Kodnani instigated large Hindu mobs to carry out massacres in Naroda Patiya as well as another neighbourhood called Naroda Gram. In Naroda Patiya, a Human Rights Watch report published in 2003 narrated that “women and girls were gang raped in public view before being hacked and burned to death. Homes were looted and burned while the community mosque, the Noorani Masjid, was destroyed using exploding gas cylinders”. The report stated that “Maya Kodnani, a BJP MLA from Naroda and Jaideep Patel, the Gujarat secretary general for the VHP were identified as ringleaders of the attacks”. The Gujarat High Court on Friday, however, acquitted her saying there was no evidence to nail her.

7. Who is Maya Kodnani? Kodnani joined the Rashtriya Sevika Samiti, the RSS women’s wing, while studying at the Baroda Medical College. She trained as a gynaecologist and started a practice in Ahmedabad, where she entered electoral politics in 1995, winning a municipal election. Kodnani rose quickly through the ranks in the BJP, contesting, and winning, the 1998 election from Naroda constituency in Ahmedabad. Two years later she was made Ahmedabad city president of the party.

Kodnani, a three-time MLA from Naroda area was considered to be close to the then Chief Minister Narendra Modi (now prime minister).

Also Read: Naroda riots: Ex-BJP minister Maya Kodnani among 32 convicted

8. Achhe din for ''BJP, Sangh Parivar': The Gujarat High Court’s judgment follows a string of legal victories for the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Sangh Parivar, the family of organisations associated with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, including the acquittal of people associated with the Sangh such as Aseemanand and Pragya Singh Thakur in cases of alleged Hindutva terrorism.

ALSO READ: Judge hearing 2002 Naroda Gam riots case retires

9. Last year, Amit Shah had told the court Maya Kodnani wasn't in Naroda Gam: In September last year, BJP president Amit Shah had appeared before a special SIT court in Ahmedabad as a defence witness for Kodnani in the 2002 Naroda Gam riot case. Shah's deposition started before Judge P B Desai who had summoned him in response to an application filed by Kodnani. According to news agency ANI, Amit Shah had said, "Maya Kodnani was not present in Naroda Gam and that she was inside the state Assembly at 8.30 am." He had added that from 9:30 am to 9:45 am, he was at the Civil Hospital and he met Maya Kodnani there. The court had allowed Kodnani's plea to summon Shah and some others as witnesses in her defence in April last year.

10. A brief chronology of the 2002 Naroda Patiya riot case: In August 2012, a special court for SIT cases had sentenced 32 people, including former BJP minister Maya Kodnani, to life imprisonment. Kodnani was sentenced to 28 years of imprisonment. The other high-profile accused, former Bajrang Dal leader Babu Bajrangi, was given life imprisonment until death.   

While seven accused had been given enhanced life imprisonment of 21 years, which they were to serve after undergoing 10 years' imprisonment under IPC section 326 (causing grievous hurt), the remaining accused had been given simple life imprisonment (14 years). The trial court had also acquitted 29 others accused for lack of evidence. While the convicts had challenged the lower court's order in the high court, the SIT appealed against the acquittal of 29 people.

During the course of the hearing, the high court judges had visited the site of the incident in Naroda Patiya area in Ahmedabad -- where 97 people from the Muslim community had been killed -- to understand its topography.

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