The Supreme Court on Friday agreed to hear review petitions filed against its August 19 decision to let off real estate barons Gopal and Sushil Ansal on payment of a fine of Rs 30 crore each in lieu of a jail term in the 1997 Uphaar cinema fire tragedy case which claimed 59 lives.
The SC had upheld the brothers’ conviction in the case but did after considering the period they had already spent in prison as their sentence, it decided not to send them to jail.
A bench of justices AR Dave, Kurien Joseph and AK Goel decided to hold an open court hearing on the review petitions filed by the CBI and the Association of Victims of Uphaar Tragedy’s (AVUT) as the petitioners contended that the sentence awarded to the brothers was inadequate and against the principles of natural justice.
Generally, a review petition is not heard in an open court and judges decide it without hearing the parties concerned after copies of the petition is circulated to them. The practice is called “hearing by circulation”.
Both the petitioners asked for an open court hearing. The CBI said while letting off the accused with mere fine, the court did not consider several aspects dealt with by the bench which had convicted the Ansals.
They wondered how such a lenient view could be taken after the SC had earlier noted that “contemptuous disregard of civic law (in the tragedy) was glaring” and “cinema owners were more interested in making money than ensuring safety of the public”.
It its review petition, AVUT said: “The Petitioner is seeking the review of the impugned operative order dated 19.08.2015 and the reasons in the judgment dated 22.09.2015 on the following amongst other grounds.”
It noted: “The sentences imposed on the convicts, Sushil Ansal and Gopal Ansal, have been substituted with fine without assigning any reason or basis thereof. The sentences of the said convicts have been reduced to the period undergone without taking into account the gravity of their offence. The orders under review run contrary to the well established jurisprudence of the principles of sentencing as followed so meticulously by this Hon’ble Court.”
“With respect, this results in a dangerous judicial precedent where rich and influential members of the society can afford to be casual in their business decisions to maximise profits at the cost of innocent lives in future. There are manifest errors apparent on record in the impugned judgments which deserves being reviewed,” said AVUT.
Fire at the cinema hall started during the screening of Hindi blockbuster Border on the evening of June 13, 1997. It first began in the parking lot and then engulfed the building in the busy Green Park area.
The CBI said the court had itself brought out the negligence on the part of Ansals, saying most people died in the ensuing stampede or were asphyxiated as the escape routes were blocked by illegally fixed chairs.
The trial court had sentenced the duo to two years’ rigorous imprisonment in November 2007. But in December 2008, the Delhi high court reduced their sentence to one year. While Sushil Ansal spent 5 months in jail, Gopal remained in jail for four months and 32 days.