NEW DELHI (Reuters) - 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.
Kodnani's conviction comes as her Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) prepares for elections 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 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 power nationally, signaled the case would likely feature in its Gujarat election campaign, saying 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.
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, Modi responded to the criticism, saying he saw no reason to apologize. "One only has to ask for forgiveness if one is guilty of a crime," he said.
Some senior members of the right-wing BJP worry, however, that the enduring legacy of the riots could hurt their chances of unseating the Congress party in national elections due in 2014.
The anti-Modi camp among the BJP's allies believes he is too tainted by the Gujarat riots to be a viable candidate for prime minister despite his success in attracting foreign companies like Ford Motor Co to his state and managing a booming economy there that has averaged double-digit growth annually.
Modi's government was quick to distance itself from the court ruling on Wednesday, noting that Kodnani had not been a Gujarat state minister at the time of the riots.
She resigned from the government when she was arrested in 2009, but remained a member of the state's legislative assembly.
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.
"For all the 32 accused, I have argued for death penalty," prosecutor Akhil Desai told a news conference in Ahmedabad.
The court will hand down sentences on Friday.
(Reporting by Shashank Chouhan; Writing by Tony Tharakan and Ross Colvin; Editing by Alison Williams)
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