By Annie Banerji
AHMEDABAD, India (Reuters) - A former Indian state minister was sentenced to 28 years in jail on Friday for murder during one of the country's worst religious riots, when up to 2,500 people, most of them Muslim, were hunted down and hacked, beaten or burnt to death in 2002.
Maya Kodnani, a sitting lawmaker for Gujarat state's ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and 30 others were jailed for their role in the so-called Naroda Patiya massacre, the single bloodiest episode of the three-day riots.
Her conviction is an embarrassment for both the BJP - the country's main opposition party - and Gujarat's high-flying chief minister, Narendra Modi, who is lauded by foreign companies for his business-friendly policies and is often touted as the country's next prime minister.
When the sentences were announced, a wail erupted from a crowd of women relatives of the convicted gathered outside the courthouse in Ahmedabad, the western state's main city.
Most relatives of the victims stayed away, a sign that 10 years on, memories of the bloodletting by Hindu mobs still cast a pall of fear over the state's Muslim community.
"We're not risking our lives by going there today. It'll be like walking into a lion's mouth," Nazir Khan, a school teacher in Naroda Patiya, a suburb of Ahmedabad, told Reuters.
Kodnani, Gujarat state's minister for women and child development from 2007 to 2009, was the highest-profile figure to be convicted in connection with the riots.
Modi appointed her as a minister in his government despite the fact she had already been implicated in the killings, although she was not arrested until 2009.
Witnesses told investigators that 57-year-old Kodnani, a gynecologist, played a leading role in the massacre of 95 people - 30 men, 32 women and 33 children - in Naroda Patiya.
Kodnani handed out swords to Hindu rioters, exhorted them to attack Muslims and at one point fired a pistol, according to witness statements seen by Reuters.
Kodnani arrived at the court in a police bus. Wearing a white saree, or traditional Indian dress, she was led into the building by women police officers. Also on the bus was Babubai Bajrangi, a Hindu nationalist firebrand who was accused of disemboweling a pregnant woman with a sword. He was sentenced to life in prison with no chance of parole.
"Babubai, don't worry. Lord Krishna is with you. You're innocent," chanted some supporters crowding around the bus.
The others convicted were sentenced to lengthy terms in jail.
The court earlier heard that police stood by while Hindu mobs attacked Muslims and told those pleading for help that they were "on holiday". Some police also fired teargas canisters at Muslims gathered in the street, witnesses said.
TURNING A BLIND EYE
The evidence and Kodnani's additional conviction for conspiracy to commit murder has raised questions about the Gujarat government's assertion that the riots were spontaneous - a Muslim mob had earlier set ablaze a train, killing 59 Hindu activists - and did not involve local officials.
"Chief minister Narendra Modi will find it difficult to wink at the fact protracted violence took place on his watch. It'll be equally hard to justify Kodnani's elevation to the rank of minister," the Times of India said in an editorial.
Critics accuse Modi, who was chief minister at the time of the riots, of turning a blind eye to the violence and have demanded many times over the years that he apologize, something he has refused to do.
Modi insists he did nothing wrong, but memories of the riots taint his efforts to present himself as a highly efficient manager of his state's booming economy. Many supporters say his economic success makes him a strong candidate for prime minister but others fear he has too much political baggage. The United States has declined to issue him a visa.
Modi's government has tried to distance itself from the Kodnani case, saying she was not a minister in 2002.
There is no exact figure for the number killed during the three-day rampage and outbreaks of violence over the next two months. Official government documents say more than 1,000 died, but human rights activists put the figure at 2,500.
The violence has left few physical scars on the uneven cobble-stoned alleys and the tiny green, pink and blue houses of Naroda Patiya. But for Saleem R. Sheikh, who saw his 27-year-old son stabbed to death, the emotional scar runs deep.
"All of them are Satan's children. Death is not good enough for them. They deserve to be tortured in unimaginable ways," Sheikh told Reuters during a visit to the area this week.
"Never did I imagine that I would be scared to step out and meet my Hindu friends, but 10 years on, I admit I think thrice before even looking at them."
(Writing by Ross Colvin, additional reporting by Shashank Chouhan and Satarupa Bhattacharjya in NEW DELHI; Editing by John Chalmers and Robert Birsel)