By Andrew MacAskill and David Ingram
NEW DELHI (Reuters) - Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s high-profile trip to the United States will not be affected by a U.S. civil lawsuit over anti-Muslim riots in a state he once led, India and the United States said on Friday.
Modi and the Indian government could seek to have the suit dismissed and it could take a judge months to decide, but its timing - the lawsuit was filed on Thursday as Modi flew to the United States - could not be more awkward.
The Indian government dismissed the legal action as a "frivolous and malicious attempt to distract attention" from Modi's visit, which will include a meeting with President Barack Obama and an address to the U.N. general assembly.
A senior U.S. official said the lawsuit should not affect Modi's visit and pointed out that heads of government enjoyed immunity from U.S. legal suits.
"I don’t think there is any fear of the two governments being distracted," the U.S. official told a conference call with journalists.
Nevertheless the lawsuit was a sharp reminder that until recently, Modi was not welcome in the United States because of the 2002 riots, in which 1,000 people, most of them Muslims, died in a wave of reprisal attacks across Gujarat after a train carrying Hindu pilgrims was set on fire.
The lawsuit was filed in New York federal court on Thursday by the American Justice Center, a non-profit human rights organization, acting on behalf of two survivors of the riots.
It seeks compensatory and punitive damages from Modi for crimes against humanity and extrajudicial killings. Modi has 21 days to respond.
"There is evidence to support the conclusion that minister Modi committed both acts of intentional and malicious direction to authorities in India to kill and maim innocent persons of the Muslim faith," the complaint said.
Critics accuse Modi, who was chief minister of the state from 2001 until this year, of doing too little to stop revenge attacks on minority Muslims. He denies the accusations and was exonerated in an Indian Supreme Court inquiry in 2012.
Modi arrives on Friday in New York, where he will speak at the United Nations before heading to Washington for talks with Obama.
The first meeting between the two leaders follows Modi's landslide general election victory in May. Compared with other foreign powers, Washington was slow to warm to Modi, with its ambassador to India only meeting him in February when opinion polls put the Hindu nationalist leader on course to win.
Modi, 64, was denied a U.S. visa in 2005 under the terms of a 1998 U.S. law that bars entry to foreigners who have committed "particularly severe violations of religious freedom".
AN ATTEMPT TO EMBARRASS
An analyst said the case was unlikely to have much impact.
"This is certainly an attempt by one activist group to embarrass Mr. Modi," said Dhruva Jaishankar, Transatlantic Fellow at the German Marshall Fund. "I do believe, however, that neither government will let this derail their official interactions. Both Washington and New Delhi are really keen to move beyond past acrimony and reset ties."
Nevertheless, Modi faces being dogged by protests on his U.S. trip even as he is expected to be warmly welcomed by much of India's large community in the United States. Modi will draw perhaps the largest crowd ever by a foreign leader on U.S. soil when he takes the stage on Sunday at New York's Madison Square Garden. More than 18,000 people are expected to attend the event.
A group called the Alliance for Justice and Accountability is calling for people to picket the venue and wave black flags in protest.
Another group, the Sikhs for Justice, will convene a 'Citizen's Court' where they will indict Modi at a park in front of the White House when he meets Obama.
The lawsuit seeks damages from Modi on behalf of two unidentified people from Gujarat.One is a Muslim woman whose mother was allegedly attacked by a mob during the riots and died of her injuries a year later, according to the court documents.
The other plaintiff is man whose grandmother was killed and who says he was attacked by a gang of Hindus, according to the complaint. When he approached the police, he alleges, they told him they had orders not to save any Muslims, the complaint said.
(Editing by Douglas Busvine and Tomasz Janowski)