AHMEDABAD: An Indian court on Wednesday convicted a former state minister and 31 others of murder during one of the worst massacres in religious riots in Gujarat in 2002.
Maya Kodnani, who served as a minister in Gujarat's Hindu nationalist state government from 2007-2009, was found guilty over the killing of 97 Muslims in the Naroda Patiya suburb of the city of Ahmedabad.
Out of 61 people facing charges, 32 were found guilty of murder and 29 were acquitted, prosecution lawyer Shamshad Pathan said.
A leader of a local extremist Hindu group, Babu Bajrangi, who was filmed by an Indian news magazine in 2007 describing setting families on fire, was also among the convicted.
"More than 90 people lost their lives, mostly children and ladies, all of them were defenceless," public prosecutor Akhil Desai said, adding that he would push for the death penalty when sentences are handed down on Friday.
"If some of the accused are lucky enough to escape the death penalty, I will ask for life imprisonment, not for 14 years but for the rest of their lives," he told reporters.
Kodnani, who served as child and human development minister under Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi until her arrest in 2009, broke down in tears as the guilty verdict was pronounced, as did relatives waiting outside the court.
Modi's proximity to Kodnani is likely to be an embarrassment for a politician widely thought to have prime ministerial ambitions but whose reputation was tarnished by the blood-letting only a few months after he was elected.
The 61-year-old from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), who is unable to gain a visa to the United States because of the riots, has been widely criticised for failing to stop them, but has consistently denied charges of wrong-doing.
The violence was triggered by the deaths of nearly 60 Hindu pilgrims in a February 2002 train fire that was initially blamed on a mob of Muslims.
Hindus hungry for revenge rampaged through Muslim neighbourhoods across Gujarat in an orgy of violence that marked some of India's worst religious riots since independence from Britain in 1947.
Human rights groups say more than 2,000 people, mainly Muslims, were hacked, beaten or burned to death, while government figures put the death toll at about 1,000.
Last year, a court in Gujarat found 31 Muslims guilty of murder and conspiracy charges for causing the train fire, but a national enquiry in 2005 concluded that the blaze was an accident and cast doubt on much of the police evidence.
Wednesday's verdicts came after final arguments in April following a trial that saw 327 witnesses called to give evidence.
More than 100 others have been convicted for killing Muslims during the riots.
In 2008, the Supreme Court ordered the re-investigation of nine of the most sensitive incidents during the riots, including the initial train fire and the violence in Naroda Patiya.
Bajrangi, in an interview taped by news magazine Tehelka, confessed to helping orchestrate the killing in Naroda Patiya where homes were set on fire and some Muslims were set ablaze while hiding in a pit.
"In Naroda and Naroda Patiya, we didn't spare a single Muslim shop, we set everything on fire, we set them on fire and killed them," he said, according to a transcript available online.