|73 held guilty for Coimbatore blasts
BY NIRMALA JOSEPH/ ASHRAF PADANNA
CHENNAI /TRIVANDRUM: A special judge hearing the 1998 Coimbatore blasts that killed 58 people convicted 73 accused in the case on Wednesday, including Syed Ahmed Basha, founder of banned Al Umma.
Judge K. Uthirapathy acquitted Abdul Nasser Mahdhani, chairman of the Kerala-based People's Democratic Party (PDP), of all charges levelled against him.
Uthirapathy said charges of criminal conspiracy have been proved against 73 of the 166 accused. The judge is expected to pronounce sentences from Aug.6, after hearing arguments by the defence.
Basha, Al Umma general secretary Mohammed Ansari and the other convicts were found guilty of hatching a criminal conspiracy to trigger the explosions and to create enmity between two communities.
Mahdhani, who is sick and suffering from various ailments, including diabetes, was exonerated of all charges. Among charges against him were conspiracy to trigger serial blasts in Coimbatore on Feb.14, 1998, shortly before the then deputy prime minister Lal Krishna Advani was to address election meetings in the city.
The court said, there was "not sufficient evidence" against Mahdhani and found him "not guilty" in the charges against him.
The verdict led to jubilation among PDP activists in Tamil Nadu and neighbouring Kerala who have been waiting for the release of the ailing Mahdhani.
Mahdhani is likely to come out of jail soon and be taken to Kerala. "We are working out the legal formalities for his release," Abdur Rahman, a member of his legal team, told the media here.
He has been acquitted of all five charges, including criminal conspiracy. He has been in Coimbatore jail for over nine years. The Kerala assembly passed a resolution last year appealing for his release.
The other activists charged with criminal conspiracy include Tajuddin and Fazal.
Emerging out of the Coimbatore Central Prison, the cleric-turned-politician said he would continue to fight for the "oppressed and the downtrodden."
"First of all I thank God. I'm indebted to all those who stood by me to protect human rights. I'll dedicate the rest of my life to the people of Kerala, and of course, I'll correct the mistakes on my part, if there were any," he said.
According to the Special Investigation Team of Tamil Nadu Police, the 19 explosions were part of a conspiracy to eliminate Advani during his visit on that day, in retaliation to the killing of 17 Muslims as a fallout of the murder of traffic constable Selvaraj on Nov.29, 1997.
The court was put under tight security on Wednesday morning as the judge started delivering the verdict on the 220 core charges against the 166 accused in the blasts.
Apart from killing 58 and injuring over 200 peo-ple, the blasts also caused a property loss to the tune of over Rs140 million in the sprawling industrial city.
Police had arrested 168 in the case, majority of them owing allegiance to Al Umma. One turned approver and another died while in custody. All the 166 accused have languished in jail for long nine years.
The trial began in March 2002 and arguments in June 2006. It was completed on April 10 last, examining about 1,300 witnesses out of a total 2,345.
While Kerala's rival political fronts and the supporters of Mahdhani expressed happiness over his acquittal on Wednesday, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was not happy with the verdict.
BJP's former central minister O. Rajagopal said "The political hypocrisy of both the rivals (Left and the United Democratic Front) stands exposed after we heard them expressing happiness over Mahdhani's acquittal."
"The Left government in Kerala had arrested Mahdhani in 1998 and the UDF has been subsequently shouting from the roof tops of the injustice meted out to him. The court has followed the case on the basis of the evidence, and it is here that we feel there has been some foul play. Both the fronts (Left and UDF) have deceived the people," he said.
"Mahdhani, who is ailing, will be taken to a private hospital here for treatment. Before that there would be a rousing public reception for him at the seaside near the airport. We will invite Chief Minister VS Achuthanandan and a large number of leaders for this," said Poonthura Siraj, working president of the PDP.