The Supreme Court on Wednesday let real estate barons Sushil and Gopal Ansal walk free, fining them Rs 60 crore in the Uphaar fire tragedy that left 59 people dead. Disappointed with the order, victim families said the judiciary was biased in favour of the rich.
The Ansals, who owned the south Delhi cinema hall and were found guilty of negligence, would not be jailed, with the court treating the time spent by them in jail as sentence served, rejecting the CBI and victim families’ plea to send the two back to jail.
While Sushil, 75, spent five months in jail, Gopal, 67, was behind bars for four months immediately after the June 13, 1997 tragedy.
“I’m very much disappointed. Eighteen years back, I lost faith in God and 18 years later, I lost faith in judiciary,” said Neelam Krishnamoorthy, who came out sobbing from the court with husband Shekhar. Their teenaged daughter and son, who had gone for the evening show of blockbuster Border, perished in the fire.
A three-judge bench headed by justice AR Dave gave the two brothers three months to deposit Rs 30 crore each with the Delhi government, which was asked to use the money to build a trauma centre. A detailed order will follow.
“Ansals managed to get away with the crime by Rs 60 crore to the government. This amount is an award for the Delhi government that was equally responsible for the tragedy,” said Neelam, who has led the families’ campaign for justice and has emerged as the face of the tragedy.
The order would set a bad precedent —- “pay money and get away with a heinous crime”.
Firefighters trying to douse fire that broke out at the Uphaar Cinema on June 13, 1997. The fire accident took away 59 lives and over 100 were injured. (HT file photo/Prakash Singh)
"One thing which I have realised is that the court of law is not same for the rich and the poor. Rich people can get away by paying money but for ordinary citizens, judiciary is different," she said.
They had spent more time – 18 years -- in courts than they did with their children, she said. Their daughter was 17 and son thirteen.
The owners, an investigation had found, added extra seats that blocked one of the exits, preventing the victims –- 23 of them were minors -- from escaping the burning hall after a fire broke out in the transformer room. Most of the victims were asphyxiated.
A two-judge bench of justice TS Thakur and justice Gyan Sudha Misra had on March 6, 2014 held Sushil and Gopal guilty of negligence, punishable with a maximum of two years in jail. They, however, differed on the quantum of sentence and fine after which the matter was referred to a larger bench. Justice Mishra, who has since retired, had called for a fine of Rs 50 crore each.
The court not only reduced the fine to Rs 30 crore, it also rejected the CBI plea for the two brothers to serve the remaining jail term. “My instruction from CBI is to press for their custody,” senior advocate Harish Salve told the court. Counsel for the Association of Victims of Uphaar Tragedy KTS Tulsi, too, called for enhanced punishment.
Firefighters and locals rescuing the victims of the Uphaar Cinema fire that broke out on June 13, 1997, killing 59 people and injuring over 100. (HT file photo/Prakash Singh)
During the hearing on Wednesday, senior advocate Ram Jethmalani began his submission accusing employees of Delhi Vidyut Board (DVB) and said they escaped as they were government servants.
On the the morning of the fateful day, a minor fire had broken out in the transformer and the DVB sent some small time 'mistri' instead of experts to fix the problem, he said.
"Mr Jethmalani, you cannot argue against the conviction. We can hear you only on quantum of sentence," the bench said, adding that the previous bench had already upheld the conviction.
"File a review, if you want to challenge it," the court said.
There was sharp exchange of words between Tulsi and Jethmalani when the former objected to the narration of facts.
"You sit down. I am entitled to raise it again and again," Jethmalani told Tulsi.
Earlier, the Ansals had challenged their conviction and claimed they were in no way responsible for the tragedy as the fire had been caused by a faulty DVB transformer.
The CBI had filed an appeal challenging the alteration in conviction and reduction of sentence by the Delhi high court on December 19, 2008. The sentence for the Ansals was reduced to one year as against the two-year sentence imposed by the sessions court.
AVUT had also approached the apex court seeking enhancement of sentence to the Ansals.
Two judges of the apex court bench had upheld the conviction, but they had differed on the quantum of sentence. The matter was then referred to a three-judge bench.
(With agency inputs)