RAEBARELI, India -- A special court in India sentenced 31 people to life in prison Wednesday after convicting them for killing dozens of Muslims during communal riots in the western Indian state of Gujarat nine years ago.
Another 42 mostly Hindu defendants were acquitted for lack of evidence.
The convictions, on charges of murder, attempted murder and arson, involved the deaths of 33 Muslims who were burned 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 in which some 60 people, mostly Hindu pilgrims, died.
Muslims, blamed for the fire, were then targeted by Hindus bent on revenge. During three days of rioting more than 1,200 people, mostly Muslims, were killed.
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.
Human rights groups have accused Narendra Modi, the top elected official of Gujarat, of tacitly supporting Hindu mobs in the 2002 attacks on Muslims.
Modi, a Hindu nationalist from the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party seen by some as a future prime ministerial candidate, has repeatedly denied the accusations.
The case involving the convictions and sentencing Wednesday is one of nine being scrutinized by a Special Investigating Team set up in 2009 at the behest of India's Supreme Court, and the first in which a decision has been reached.
While there are some 2,000 cases related to the Gujarat rioting slowly working their way through the courts, these nine are among the most closely watched.
The court action Wednesday followed the sentencing by a special court in Gujarat in March of 31 Muslims found guilty of setting fire to the Sabarmati Express train that sparked the inter-religious killings. Eleven were given death sentences and another 20 received lifetime prison terms, with 63 in that case acquitted.
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Responsibility for the train fire has been the subject of fierce dispute between Hindus and Muslims. In recent years, however, analysts say expanded wealth and greater political maturity has reduced the risk of communal rioting.
"I don't think there will be any tension between Hindus and Muslims," said Dushyant Dave, a senior Supreme Court lawyer. "Even majority Hindus should draw a sense of satisfaction. No one wants to be associated with criminals after all."
(Tanvi Sharma in the Times' New Delhi bureau contributed to this report.)
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