A Division Bench of the Gujarat High Court on Friday acquitted former BJP Minister Maya Kodnani, saying there was absence of sufficient proof of her presence at the crime scene in the Naroda Patiya massacre case of 2002.
The court also upheld the conviction of Bajrangi Dal activist Babu Bajrangi, who was sentenced to imprisonment for life by the trial court.
The Bharatiya Janata Party Minister was one of the key accused in the riot case and was convicted by a special SIT court in August 2012. She was sentenced to 28 years in imprisonment.
The judgment was pronounced on the appeals filed by the former BJP Minister and others against their conviction by the SIT court.
The Division Bench of Justice Harsha Devani and Justice A.S. Supehia upheld the conviction by the special court of Babubhai Patel alias Bajrangi, a prominent leader of the Bajrang Dal Hindu outfit.
He was a key conspirator in the massacre in Naroda Patiya area, where 97 Muslim persons were killed in the Godhra aftermath.
The Naroda Patiya riots was one of the worst incidents during communal conflagration that engulfed Gujarat, following the train burning incident on February 27, 2002, at Godhra in which 59 Kar Sevaks were killed.
The High Court in August 2017 had reserved its order after the hearing concluded against the judgment of the special court.
The special court had sentenced 32 people, including Kodnani and Bajrangi. Seven others were given enhanced life imprisonment of 21 years, which they will serve after undergoing 10 years' imprisonment under IPC section 326 (causing grievous hurt).
The remaining accused were given simple life imprisonment of 14 years.
The trial court's acquittal of 29 other accused in the case, for want of evidence was challenged by the SIT, even as those convicted had challenged the lower court's order in the High Court for respite.
Government counsel Prashant Desai said: "It is clear from the Gujarat High Court's judgment that the court has gone on no witness theory."
"Twelve accused have been convicted. Besides Babu Bajrangi, Prakash Rathod and Suresh Chara alias Suresh Langda have been convicted under the IPC 120 (B) as key conspirators.
"The sting operation by the Tehelka was not taken into account by the court. The 12 have been convicted with 21 years imprisonment without remission.
"Whatever Babu Bajrangi did was no different from what the others did, so his conviction was on parity. Court believed police witnesses."
"On Maya Kodnani, there were contradictions in the witnesses' testimony against her presence at the crime scene. None of the police witnesses have said that they saw Kodnani at the scene.
"The SIT will have to appeal within 90 days to the Supreme Court if they want to challenge the Gujarat High Court verdict," added the counsel.
Deputy Chief Minister Nitin Patel said: "Our minister Kodnani was wrongfully implicted in the Naroda Patiya massacre case. But today after the Gujarat High Court acquittal, she has been found innocent."
"We are happy with the verdict and welcome the decision. She has worked hard for the party and definitely she will be given an active role in the party if she wishes to continue."
Meanwhile, the state BJP president Jitu Vaghani has blamed the Congress party for arraigning Kodnani in the case. "The Congress wrongfully involved our former minister."
(With IANS inputs)