A decade after a bomb blast killed nine worshippers at the historic Mecca Masjid here, a NIA court on Monday acquitted all five Hindu activists accused. Within hours, the judge who ordered the acquittals resigned, citing "personal reasons".
While Congress and Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (MIM) criticised the acquittals, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) said the verdict exposed the appeasement politics of Congress.
The National Investigation Agency court held that none of the charges framed against the accused, including Swamy Aseemanand, had been proved, a lawyer for one of the accused told reporters outside the court complex.
Righwing Hindu activists Nabakumar Sarkar alias Swamy Aseemanand, Devender Gupta, Lokesh Sharma, Bharat Mohanlal Rateshwar alias Bharat Bhai and Rajender Chowdhary, against whom the charges were framed, were all acquitted.
Hours later, special NIA court judge K. Ravinder Reddy tendered his resignation, surprising legal and political circles. His letter was sent to the Chief Justice of the Hyderabad High Court.
There was no information if his decision was linked to the verdict or some other issue.
Swamy Aseemanand, a resident of Gujarat and head of Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram, was earlier acquitted in the Ajmer Dargah blast case and is currently on bail in Samjhauta Express blast case of 2014. Devendra Gupta is the RSS pracharak from Bihar while Lokesh Sharma is a RSS activist from Madhya Pradesh.
The powerful explosion also injured more than 50 during the Friday prayers at the 17th century mosque near the iconic Charminar on May 18, 2007. Later, five more people were killed in subsequent police firing on the crowd outside the mosque.
There were a total of 10 accused in the case and five of them were chargesheeted by the NIA. One, Sunil Joshi, a RSS pracharak, was murdered during the course of investigation. Three accused, Sandeep V Dange and Ramchandra Kalsangra, both RSS activists, and Amit Chowhan, are absconding while Tejram Parmar is on bail.
A total of three chargesheets were filed by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) and the NIA in the sensational case. Over 200 witnesses were examined and 400 documents were submitted to the court.
The city police, which initially took up investigations, blamed Bangaldeshi terror outfit Harkatul Jihad Islami and rounded up about 100 Muslim youth. All those arrested and jailed were acquitted in 2008 and the subsequent investigations by the CBI in 2010 revealed that the blast was the handiwork of Hindu rightwing group Abhinav Bharat. The case was handed over to NIA on April 4, 2011.
According to the chargesheet, the accused were "angered by terrorist attacks committed on Hindus and their temples" and conspired to "avenge" such acts with attacks on Muslim places of worship and places densely populated by Muslims.
The chargesheet also mentioned that Aseemanand made a confessional statement before a metropolitan magistrate in Delhi. He had allegedly disclosed the conspiracy behind the bomb blasts in different places, including Mecca. Aseemanand allegedly retracted the statement later.
Aseemanand was first arrested by CBI in 2010 but was granted conditional bail in 2017 in the case.
Reacting to the acquittal, MIM chief Asaduddin Owaisi said justice had not been done and that the ruling will weaken the fight against terrorism. He said it was a biased investigation and NIA was not allowed to pursue the case by its political masters.
In a series of tweets, Owaisi said the NIA and Modi-led government did not even appeal against the bail given to the accused within 90 days.
The Hyderabad MP urged Telangana Chief Minister K. Chandrasekhar Rao to use his good offices to put pressure on the central government to challenge the judgement in a higher court.
Defence lawyer and BJP's member of Telangana legislative council N. Ramchandra Rao hailed the judgement. He said there was no evidence against the accused and alleged that the then UPA government had implicated them in a false case to malign the Sangh Parivar.
Senior Congress leader Ghulam Nabi Azad said people were losing faith in NIA. He told television channels that accused in several cases were acquitted since the BJP-led government was formed at the Centre four years ago.
The BJP said it had exposed the Congress' appeasement politics and proved that there is "no such thing as saffron terror".
BJP spokesperson Sambit Patra accused the Congress of defaming Hindu religion by coining the term and demanded an apology from Congress President Rahul Gandhi.