NEW DELHI (Reuters) - The head of India's ruling party was acquitted of murder, kidnapping and extortion charges on Tuesday, exonerating the controversial politician in a trial that had undermined the government's promise to usher in a new era of clean politics.Amit Shah, the closest aide of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, was cleared of ordering police to carry out the extrajudicial killings of a gangster - Sohrabuddin Sheikh, his wife and his friend - when he served as home minister under Modi in the state of Gujarat almost a decade ago.The police case "mostly relies on the statements of witnesses, which are hearsay in nature", said Judge M.B. Gosavi at a special court run by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), India's top law enforcement agency.
Shah was promoted to president of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in July as he awaited trial, two months after helping Modi to deliver India's biggest election victory since 1984. His appointment drew criticism that Modi was failing to change the political culture in India where a third of legislators face criminal charges.
Party workers praise Shah as an efficient administrator, whose sharp political mind has helped him win nearly every election he has overseen in the last three decades."The BJP never had any doubt about his culpability. That is the reason why he was given the national leadership," said G.V.L. Narasimha Rao, a spokesman for the party.
However, Rubabuddin Sheikh, the brother of one of the victims, said his family would challenge the ruling."Amit Shah has wrongly been protected and we will challenge the court's order in the high court," Sheikh said.
The CBI had accused Shah of running an extortion racket with police officers and Sheikh while holding the top law-and-order position in Gujarat.
Shah and Sheikh fell out and police snatched Sheikh from a bus with his wife in 2005, the CBI said in a charge sheet.
Sheikh was killed in a staged gun battle and his wife's cremated body was later found in the village of one of the policemen, the CBI report said.Phone records show Shah had multiple calls with the accused officers during the operation and was "pivotal" to the conspiracy, the police said in the report.
A year later, a friend of the couple who witnessed the abduction was killed in a shootout with police.The Gujarat government later admitted all three murders were staged, according to court documents. Police officers remain on trial for the killings.
Editing by Malini Menon