Deadline Approaches for State Department to Answer to Indian Prime Minister's Human Rights Violation Charges

In 2002, the Indian province of Gujarat experienced one of the bloodiest instances of religious violence in the country’s history. Following a train fire that killed 59 Hindus, riots erupted across the province that targeted the local Muslim minority. More than 300 mosques and other religious sites were destroyed. Muslim women were chased through the street, raped and burned alive. After three days of unrest, at least 1,000 people died and more than 16,000 Muslims were driven from their homes and became refugees.

A 2005 report by Amnesty International revealed that police stood by or even joined in the violence. And some suggest that police may have even been ordered by their superiors not to intervene.

Some of the blame has been directed at Gujarat’s then-Chief Minister, Narendra Modi. Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and India’s National Human Rights Commission have accused Modi of not acting to stop the riots.

The accusations against Modi were enough for the United States to deny him a visa in 2005.

That put the United States government in an awkward position when Modi, a Hindu nationalist, was elected Prime Minister in May. Following his election, the U.S. State Department reinstated Modi’s visa, arguing that his position as a head of state granted him diplomatic immunity.

However, a small U.S.-based human rights group refuses to let Modi walk free.

In September, just ahead of Modi’s first visit to the United States as the newly elected Indian Prime Minister, the American Justice Center filed a civil lawsuit in a New York Federal Court seeking punitive damages on behalf of two survivors of the 2002 Gujarat riots.

The American Justice Center also offered a $10,000 reward to anyone who would serve Modi with a court summons when he visited New York City.

In November, a federal judge overseeing the case ordered the U.S. State Department to respond by December 10 (next week) to the American Justice Center’s memorandum challenging Modi’s diplomatic immunity.

The American Justice Center argues that the lawsuit applies to acts Modi committed as Chief Minister, not as a head of state, which would exempt him from diplomatic immunity.

“We are confident of the sound legal basis for the Tort case against Mr. Modi, and expect the court to allow the lawsuit to move forward,” American Justice Center President Joseph Whittington said in a press release. “Survivors of the horrific Gujarat massacres expect the US to uphold its own laws as well as international norms of justice.”

The American Justice Center has pursued Modi across the globe. Last month, the organization filed a criminal complaint against Modi in Australia a few days before the Indian Prime Minister visited that country. The complaint charged Modi with committing crimes against humanity and genocide for his role in the 2002 Gujarat riots.

“Our relentless pursuit of justice has now taken us to the Australian shores, where Mr. Modi will have to account for his criminal misdeeds in Gujarat,” said Whittington in press release related to the charges in Australia. 

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