The Gujarat High Court Friday acquitted former BJP minister Maya Kodnani in the 2002 Naroda Patiya massacre case overturning a trial court ruling which had sentenced her life imprisonment in 2012. Also upholding the conviction of former Bajrang Dal leader Babu Bajrangi in the same case, the HC commuted his sentence of life imprisonment until death to 21 years imprisonment without remission.
The division bench of Justices Harsha Devani and A S Supehia giving Kodnani the “benefit of doubt” found that the testimonies of the witnesses against her were unreliable. The Naroda Patiya massacre, in which 97 Muslims were killed, was among the most brutal cases in the post-Godhra violence in 2002.
Acquitting 18 of the 32 convicted by the trial court, the HC Friday also overturned the trial court acquittal of three accused, P J Rajput, Rajkumar Chaumal alias Raju who is an advocate, and Umesh Bharwad and held them guilty. The quantum of sentence will be pronounced on May 5.
The special trial court presided over by Judge Jytosna Yagnik – now retired – and set up on directions of the Supreme Court, which directly monitored the trials of nine 2002 riot cases of Gujarat, had relied on 11 witnesses to hold Kodnani guilty as the “kingpin” in the case and had sentenced her to life imprisonment for 28 years. Kodnani has been on bail for health reasons.
Reading out the judgment Justice Devani said that in the case of Kodnani, out of 11 eyewitnesses who deposed against her, none had named her when the incident took place. Justice Devani noted, “Version given by these witnesses are contradictory to each other… none of the police witnesses present at the incident named Maya Kodnani. Given this… it would be hazardous for the court to implicate her.”
The HC discarded the account of eyewitnesses who named Kodnani as the leader of the mob only in 2008 and held that none of the witnesses had even mentioned her name till several probe agencies and NGOs came into the picture. The bench pointed out that though witnesses claimed later that they did not know the content of their complaints recorded by local police, they never mentioned Kodnani’s name in their later complaints or affidavits to senior police officers and the Supreme Court between 2002 and 2008.
Some witnesses had filed affidavits in the apex court in 2004 and alleged that local police were not probing their complaint properly they did not mention Kodnani’s name.
The bench held that under these circumstances, the eyewitness testimonies recorded after a gap of six years, with the help of NGOs, needed to be evaluated since all the witnesses came forward only in 2008.
In the order, Justice Devani said, “Given this… it would be hazardous for the court to implicate her.” Justice Devnani also said that the “testimony of none of the witnesses is reliable and charges under 120B (conspiracy) not established. Hence she is acquitted.”
In the case of Babubhai Patel alias Babu Bajrangi, the HC relied on four police witnesses who had testified that Bajrangi was leading a mob at different times on that day. The trial court had not relied upon these police witnesses. The high court noted that it was “nobody’s case that police acted in a partisan manner of Hindu mob or assisted them.”
The court commuted Bajrangi’s sentence of life imprisonment until death to 21 years imprisonment without remission.
With Bajrangi, the bench upheld the conviction of Prakash Rathod and Suresh Didawala alias Richard alias Langado for murder and criminal conspiracy. Bajrangi, Rathod and Didawala were also caught confessing to the crime in a sting operation. All three were the only accused whose convictions were upheld in the conspiracy charge. The trial court had held 27 accused responsible for the conspiracy under which they mobilised people to target Muslims.
The bench opined that CDs or DVDs of the sting operation were not admissible as evidence but former journalist and now AAP leader Ashish Khetan’s deposition in court was part of the evidence. The trial court had held the sting operation admissible as evidence.
“The most important thing about this judgment is that the bench has upheld that even if two witnesses are attributing to an offender with similar versions, punishment can be given. And this is the reason why conviction of 12 has been upheld and three acquittals have been reversed by the court,” said special public prosecutor R C Kodekar.
Among the acquitted is Kirpal Singh Chabda who was said to be the personal assistant to Kodnani but the high court bench held “prosecution failed to prove it.” The HC also rejected the SIT appeal against the acquittal of Geeta and her sister Ramila Rathod and said there was no evidence to prove their role. Out of 13 convictions, 12 were handed life sentences and one was awarded 10 years jail.