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Gujarat Hindus acquitted


BBC OnLine:

A court in the western Indian state of Gujarat has acquitted 21 Hindus accused of burning alive 12 Muslims in a bakery last year.

The attack happened during religious riots that were sparked by the earlier torching of a train carrying Hindu activists.

The 12 Muslims were burned alive when they took refuge in the bakery near the city of Baroda on 1 March, 2002.

On Friday, the court ruled that there was no evidence against the accused.

The ruling had been expected - 35 of the 73 witnesses retracted in court the statements they had given to police identifying the attackers.

Sessions court judge Hemant Mahida handed down the ruling in Vadodara, 100 kilometres (60 miles) south of Ahmedabad, Gujarat's largest city.

Human rights activists said they hoped the case would not set a precedent for other criminal trials stemming from the riots.

Between 1,000 and 2,000 people, most of them Muslims, were killed in three months of violence across the state.

The catalyst for the riots was the torching of a train carrying Hindu activists in Godhra in February last year.

A total of 58 people were killed in the attack, blamed on a Muslim mob.

Friday's ruling is the first judgment in any case relating to the religious violence.

Several activists and non-governmental organisations in the state have accused the state government, led by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, of intimidating the witnesses.

The chief witness, Zahira Sheikh, daughter of the murdered bakery owner, Habibullah, said in court on 17 May that she did not recognise any of the accused, contradicting her earlier statement.

After that, one witness after another claimed during cross-examination that police had picked them up at random and made them sign prepared statements.

No Muslims, not even relatives of the victims, were in court to hear the verdict.

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