HC acquits Maya Kodnani in Naroda Patiya riots case

Former Gujarat minister Maya Kodnani. PTI File Photo

The Gujarat High Court on Friday acquitted former state BJP minister Mayaben Kodnani, a key accused in the 2002 Naroda Patiya riots case. 

Maya, a gynaecologist, was convicted by a special SIT court in August 2012 and sentenced to 28 years in prison but was out on bail.

On the other hand, the court upheld the sentence against another key accused Babu Bajrangi, a prominent Bajrang Dal leader. 

Bajrangi had been sentenced to imprisonment till life by the SIT court. However, the Gujarat High Court has reduced it to 21 years.

“The court said that his crime was similar to those of others convicted and on the parity of sentence, his sentence has now been fixed for 21 years,” Prashant Desai, the government's counsel, told mediapersons.

Desai said that the court held Bajrangi and two others, Suresh Chhara and Prakash Rathod, to be part of a criminal conspiracy on the basis of a statement by the editor of an online portal, though it said that the sting operation by a media outlet was not admissible in court.

“Also five police officials had in their statements said that they had seen Babu Bajrangi at the venue of the incident,” Desai said.

The 3000-page judgement was pronounced by a division bench of Justice Harsha Devani and Justice A S Supehia on appeals filed by former BJP minister Maya Kodnani and others against their conviction in the riots case.

The Naroda Patiya riots were one of the worst incidents during the communal conflagration that engulfed the state of Gujarat, following the train burning incident of February 27, 2002, at Godhra in which 59 'kar sevaks' were killed. As many as 97 people from the minority community were killed in the Naroda Patiya riots.

Talking about the high court’s reasons for acquitting Maya, Desai said that though there were 11 witnesses who had said that Mayaben was present there and gave a speech before leaving Naroda Patiya, the court found a contradiction in their statements. 

“None of the police witnesses ever mentioned her presence. The court gave prominence to police witness. Also, her name was not there when investigations began in 2002 but her name first had cropped up in 2008, when the Supreme Court appointed SIT began investigating the case,” Desai added.

BJP president Amit Shah, too, had in September deposed before the court of Justice PD Desai, stating that Maya was with him in the Assembly at 8.30 am and later he had met her at the Civil Hospital at Sola where he was there from 9.30 am to 9.45 am. 

The bodies of the Godhra train victims were brought to Sola hospital and Maya was consoling families of those killed in the attack when he reached there.

During the course of the hearing, the high court judges visited Naroda Patiya to understand the topography. A number of judges, including Justices Akil Kureshi, M R Shah, K S Jhaveri, G B Shah, Sonia Gokani and R H Shukla had recused themselves from the case from hearing the appeals. 

The Gujarat High Court reserved the order last August after the concluding hearings against the judgement of the SIT court.

The special court had in 2012 sentenced 32 people, including Maya and Bajrangi. Seven other accused were given enhanced life imprisonment of 21 years, which they were to serve after undergoing 10 years' imprisonment under IPC Section 326 that relates to causing grievous hurt. Remaining accused were given simple life imprisonment of 14 years.

Of the 32 found guilty by the special court, two people died during the trial period. Of the remaining 30, the Gujarat High Court on Friday acquitted 18, finding only 12 guilty. 

“The court has also pronounced three of the 29 people acquitted by the special court to be guilty,” Desai said.

The high court also rejected the plea by the SIT to enhance the sentence for all those found guilty. The court also turned down the demand by victims' family for financial compensation.

Reacting to the judgement, Maya's husband Surendra Kodnani said: “We had faith in the judiciary and we thank them. Our faith in the judiciary has been upheld."

On the other hand, the lawyer for victims in the case Shamshad Pathan said that they were not completely satisfied with the judgement as Maya and several others had been acquitted. 

“We will approach the Supreme Court against the acquittals as well as the reduction in sentence of those found guilty in the case,” he said.

The judgement also saw political reactions, with the BJP trying to put the blame on the Congress for conviction of Maya, while the Congress blamed the BJP. 

“Mayaben was wrongfully implicated in Naroda Patiya case by the Congress. We are happy that the Gujarat High Court has pronounced her to be innocent. She has worked hard for the party and would definitely be given an active role in the party if she wishes to continue,” Deputy Chief Minister Nitin Patel said.

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