Sep 26, 2014 1:44 PM
Lawsuit accuses Indian PM of role in 2002 violence
The Associated Press
NEW YORK (AP) A federal court in New York has summoned India's prime minister to respond to a lawsuit accusing him of human rights abuses, casting a shadow over the Indian leader's first trip to the U.S. on Friday as head of government.
The lawsuit against Narendra Modi stems from long-standing allegations that he didn't do enough to stop devastating religious riots in his home state of Gujarat in 2002, when he served as chief minister there. A newly formed human rights group, the American Justice Center, filed the suit Thursday in Manhattan federal court on behalf of two unnamed survivors of the violence. It is offering $10,000 to anyone who can serve the summons on Modi.
The plaintiffs are seeking monetary and punitive damages and a judgment that Modi's conduct amounted to genocide when he was chief minister of Gujarat.
The legal case will be an annoyance to Modi but is unlikely to have a significant impact on his visit.
A senior Obama administration official said that as a general legal principle, sitting heads of government enjoy immunity from suits in American courts while in the United States. They also enjoy "personal inviolability," which means they cannot be personally handed or delivered papers to begin the process of a lawsuit. The official, who was not authorized to comment publicly about the issue, requested anonymity.
Milan Vaishnav, an associate on South Asia at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said from his understanding it's a "pro forma" summons, and there's no judge's ruling of prima facie evidence on complicity in the Gujarat violence.
The attorneys for the plaintiff said their law firm had advised another rights group, Sikhs for Justice, in filing cases against previous Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and former ruling party leader Sonia Gandhi when they visited the U.S. Vaishnav said those cases hadn't gotten anywhere.
"There's no question it's precisely the wrong foot on which to begin Modi's visit to the United States," Vaishnav said, but predicted it would just get a brief flurry of attention. "I don't expect it in any material way to affect any of his engagements in the United States, either with private citizens or private industry in New York or in Washington with the U.S. administration."
Modi was elected prime minister in May. He was scheduled to arrive in New York on Friday with a welcome normally reserved for rock stars a sold-out appearance at Madison Square Garden on Sunday.
Modi's five-day trip is tightly packed: He will be meeting President Barack Obama and a slew of top American officials, addressing the U.N. General Assembly and interacting with the heads of major U.S. companies and influential Indian-Americans. He is also scheduled to meet privately with Mayor Bill de Blasio later Friday.
Modi has denied any role in the violence, and India's Supreme Court said there was no case to bring against him. But suspicions were enough for the United States to refuse him a visa in 2005. As it became clear that Modi would become prime minister, however, the U.S. made it clear that there would be no issue with travel to the United States.
India's Foreign Ministry said in a statement that the allegations were "baseless." It described the case as "a frivolous and malicious attempt" to distract attention from Modi's visit. It said "appropriate steps" were being taken to address the matter, without giving details.
"Our court and our public have given clean chit to (Modi) and he became prime minister," Bizay Sonkar Shastri, a spokesman for Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party, said. "So how is it possible that another country's' man or authority is issuing a summons?"
The lawsuit says, "There is evidence to support the conclusion that Minister Modi committed both acts of intentional and malicious direction to authorities in India to kill and maim innocent persons of the Muslim faith."
The plaintiffs said the suit was filed in a U.S. court because "it is clear that justice for the plaintiffs cannot be had in India because of the condoning of this genocidal act of state-sanctioned terrorism against the Muslim people."
Obama was among the first Western leaders to call and congratulate Modi when his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party swept into power in May.
Still, Modi's critics worry the ascendance of his Hindu nationalist party could worsen sectarian tensions with India's minority 138 million Muslims.
Although he won the election decisively on promises of economic growth, Modi remains a divisive figure in the country of 1.2 billion people in large part because of the Gujarat riots.
Allegations that he was complicit in the devastating religious riots have haunted him for years.
As chief minister of Gujarat state, he was in command in 2002 when Hindu mobs rampaged through Muslim neighborhoods, towns and villages. More than 1,000 people, most of them Muslims, were killed. It was some of the worst religious violence India has seen since its independence from Britain in 1947.
The riots erupted after a fire killed 60 passengers on a train packed with Hindu pilgrims.
Associated Press writers Ulana Ilnytzky in New York and Elizabeth A. Kennedy and Chonchui Ngashangva in New Delhi contributed to this report.