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Indian court sentences 31 to life in prison in 2002 riots

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REPORTING FROM RAEBARELI, INDIAN -- A special court in India sentenced 31 people to life in prison Wednesday for killing dozens of Muslims during communal riots in the western state of Gujarat nine years ago.

Another 42 mostly Hindu defendants were acquitted for lack of evidence.

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The convictions, on charges of murder, attempted murder and arson, involved an incident in which 33 Muslims were burned alive in a building as they tried to escape a raging mob. Twenty-eight bodies were found at the scene and five others died later of their injuries.

“This is a great verdict in the history of combating communal violence in India,” said R.B. Sreekumar, who was director general of the Gujarat police intelligence bureau at the time. “There were reports that the Indian system is failing by not protecting minorities, but this is a healthy outcome.”

The 2002 communal riots, including this deadly house burning, were among the worst in recent Indian history. The catalyst was a train fire on Coach S-6 of the Sabarmati Express passenger train on Feb. 27 of that year that killed about 60 people, mostly Hindu pilgrims.

Muslims, blamed for the fire, were then targeted by Hindus bent on revenge during three days of rioting that killed more than 1,200 people, mostly Muslims.

Some analysts saw a larger class message in Wednesday’s court decision. Teesta Setalvad, a social activist based in Gujarat, said this decision -- involving mostly poor laborer victims and higher-class accused –- sends a message that the rich can’t always get their way. “The laborers got justice,” she said.

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-- Mark Magnier

Tanvi Sharma in the New Delhi bureau contributed to this report.


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