MADURAI, India -- In a court case that has provided a grim reminder of the sectarian violence that has haunted India since its birth, 32 people were convicted Wednesday of participating in riots between Hindus and Muslims that followed the burning of a train in western Gujarat state in 2002.
Sentencing is expected on Friday, with the prosecution demanding the death penalty. Legal experts expect most of those convicted to receive at least several years in prison given the high-profile nature of the case, stemming from riots that took the lives of more than 1,000 people, most of them Muslims.
There were originally 62 defendants; 29 were acquitted, and one died during the lengthy trial.
"This is a very good judgment, partly because judicial process on communal-riot cases has been very bad," said Kamal Chenoy, professor of politics at Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru University. "We're happy, but obviously a lot of people got off."
Separately, India's Supreme Court affirmed the death sentence Wednesday for Ajmal Amir Kasab, 25, the lone surviving gunman in the 2008 Mumbai attack that killed 166 people.
The court rejected Kasab's argument that he hadn’t received a fair trial, ruling that legal procedures were not violated when the government failed to provide him with a lawyer during pre-trial proceedings.
A court convicted Kasab in May 2010 of criminal conspiracy, waging war against the nation and various terrorism charges, a decision he appealed. Judges ruled that his actions met a "rarest of the rare" standard deserving of the death penalty.
Kasab was the only one of 10 attackers captured alive after the November 2008 attack. He can still avoid execution -- carried out by hanging in India -- if the president reduces his sentence, an outcome that seems unlikely given the raw public emotions surrounding the case.
Wednesday's verdict in the Gujarat case, meanwhile, represents the sixth decision of nine major cases working their way through the courts involving the 2002 riots, among the deadliest in recent Indian history.
The catalyst was a fire that raced through Coach S-6 of the Sabarmati Express passenger train on Feb. 27, 2002, killing about 60 people, mostly Hindu pilgrims. Its source is still controversial, but Hindus blamed Muslims and sought revenge. Over the next three days, at least 1,200 people, mostly Muslims, were killed.
Wednesday's verdict covered the case of a mob attack the day after the train fire, when a crowd surrounded the Muslim neighborhood of Naroda Patiya. Residents were attacked with swords, sticks, pipes and stones, their valuables looted and houses burned. In all, 97 residents were killed and 800 families left homeless in what was the deadliest of several Gujarat riot cases.
Among those convicted in the exhaustive trial -- in which over 300 eyewitnesses, victims, doctors, police and forensic experts testified -- were a former state minister with the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, on charges of murder and criminal conspiracy.
"This is unprecedented," said R.B. Sreekumar, a senior police officer at the time of the riots who has since retired. "Not only have we seen people convicted who actually did the violence, but those who incited and motivated people, like the former lawmaker."
The decision by a special court in the Gujarat capital of Ahmedabad is a blow to Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi, seen as a possible future BJP candidate for prime minister. Gujarat authorities have been accused of standing by while the violence unfolded. Eyewitnesses say Modi discouraged police from intervening; he has long denied any wrongdoing.
The BJP sought to distance itself from the verdict Wednesday. "We don't support any violence," said spokesman Prakash Javadekar. "But this is the first court decision, and there is a legal procedure in place."
Others expressed hope the judgment would help heal deep social wounds. "On the whole, this is a very great thing," Sreekumar said. "It shows that both Hindu and Muslim militants can't escape. With these convictions, hopefully it will help prevent riots in the future."
-- Mark Magnier
Photo: A convict consoles his son while being taken to prison after the court verdict in a 2002 religious violence case in Ahmadabad, India, on Wednesday. Credit: Associated Press