LUCKNOW – An Indian court on Wednesday acquitted all 32 people accused of crimes in a 1992 attack and demolition of a 16th century mosque that sparked Hindu-Muslim violence leaving some 2,000 people dead.
Four senior leaders of the ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, were among the defendants in a trial that languished in India’s sluggish legal system for almost 28 years. Seventeen of the 49 accused died of natural causes during the trial.
The four BJP leaders were accused of making inflammatory speeches that incited tens of thousands of their followers who had camped out in the city of Ayodhya ahead of the attack on the mosque.
Last year, India’s Supreme Court ruled in favor of building a Hindu temple on the disputed site. Hindus believe their god Ram was born there and say the Muslim Emperor Babur built a mosque on top of a temple at the site.
The Supreme Court also ruled that the demolition of the Babri Masjid was illegal and ordered that the separate trial in the mosque demolition case be completed expeditiously.
Judge Surendra Kumar Yadav ruled there was no criminal conspiracy to attack the mosque by hard-line Hindu activists and no conclusive evidence to prove it, said attorney Rishab Tripathi, who represented one of the defendants.
“The incident was not pre-planned," Yadav said in his ruling in Lucknow, the capital of Uttar Pradesh state. “The leaders present there actually tried to control and pacify the mob.”
Some of those acquitted and their supporters shouted ”Jai Shree Ram," hailing the god Ram, in the court. They later distributed sweets outside the court to celebrate the decision.
The four acquitted BJP leaders — L.K. Advani, Murli Manohar Joshi, Uma Bharti and Kalyan Singh — have said the mosque’s demolition was a spontaneous eruption by angry Hindu activists.
I.B. Singh, an attorney who represented Joshi, said investigators couldn't prove the authenticity of audio and video evidence submitted in the case, and the judge held that the case lacked legal evidence that the accused were part of any conspiracy.
Joshi, who was a minister in a former BJP government, said "the truth has triumphed.’’
Advani said in a statement that the judgment "vindicated his and the BJP’s belief and commitment toward the Ram temple movement."
Another acquitted defendant, Jai Bhagwan Goyal, said: “We had done nothing wrong. The whole of India is happy. Lord Ram’s temple is coming up in Ayodhya city.”
The Muslim community will challenge the acquittals in an appeals court. “This is an erroneous judgment, as it is against evidence and against law," said Jaffaryab Jilani, representing the All India Muslim Law Board.
The verdict also was sharply criticized by Maulana Khalid Rashid, chairman of the Islamic Center of India, who said Muslims have always respected court decisions, but this was an injustice to the community.
“When the Supreme Court said that the demolition of the mosque was an unlawful act, how can a lower court set free the accused?” he said.
Rashid said Muslim organizations should evaluate whether it is prudent to challenge the decision. “Will Muslims get justice there?” he said.
Muslim-majority Pakistan strongly condemned the court judgment and said the defendants who had "boasted of the criminal act publicly could not have been set free."
Pakistan's foreign ministry said in a statement that Hindu nationalists' hatred of minorities, particularly Muslims, indicates that India is fast becoming a Hindu nation where minorities are second-class citizens.
On Dec. 6, 1992, tens of thousands of Hindus gathered for a rally near the disputed site, and groups climbed the mosque and demolished it with axes and hammers.
The accused included Lal Krishna Advani, 92, a co-founder of the BJP who served as deputy prime minister from 2002 to 2004 under Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Others included another former government minister, Uma Bharti, as well as Kalyan Singh, who was the top elected BJP leader of Uttar Pradesh state when the mosque was demolished.
In its ruling last November, the Supreme Court ordered the entire disputed area of 2.77 acres (1.1 hectares) to be allocated to Hindus for the construction of a temple, while 5 acres (2 hectares) at another location would be allocated to the construction of a mosque.
Associated Press writer Munir Ahmed in Islamabad, Pakistan, contributed to this report.