The Supreme Court on Thursday ordered one year in jail for city-based builder Gopal Ansal who with his elder brother, Sushil, owned a south Delhi cinema hall where a fire killed 59 people 20 years ago.
Reviewing its 2015 judgment that saw the brothers, who owned Uphaar Cinema, being let off with a fine of Rs 30 crore each, the court said the jail term would act as a deterrent and serve larger public interest. He has four weeks to surrender.
The court, however, allowed Sushil,76, to stay out of jail because of his age. He has already served a reduced sentence of five months.
“Gravity of the offence and the illegal gains made by them (Ansals) is such that no fine would be excessive for the irreparable loss caused,” the bench said, upholding the Rs 60 crore fine.
The money had already been paid and is lying with the court’s registry.
The three-judge bench of justice Ranjan Gogoi, justice Kurien Joseph and Justice AK Goel was hearing a petition filed by the CBI and the Association of Victims of Uphaar Tragedy against its August 19, 2015 order.
The Ansals were found guilty of negligence but were not jailed, with the court treating the time spent by them behind bars as sentence served.
While Sushil spent five months in jail. Gopal, 68, was behind bars for four months immediately after the June 13, 1997 tragedy.
The owners, an investigation had found, added extra seats that blocked one of the exits, preventing the victims –- 23 of them minors -- from escaping the burning hall after a fire broke out in the transformer room. Most of the victims were asphyxiated.
Association of Victims of Uphaar Fire Tragedy (AVUT) vs
Ansal Theatre and Clubotels
- June 13, 1997: 59 people die of asphyxia as a fire breaks out in south Delhi’s Uphaar cinema during the screening of the Hindi movie "Border". Over 100 were injured in the subsequent stampede.
- July 22, 1997: Theatre owner Sushil Ansal and his son Pranav arrested in Mumbai by the crime branch of Delhi police.
- Nov 15, 1997: CBI files chargesheet against 16 accused, including Uphaar owners Sushil and Gopal Ansal.
- Feb 27, 2001: Court frames charges against the accused under various sections, including sections 304 (culpable homicide), 304A (causing death by negligent act) and 337 (hurt) of the IPC.
- Jan 27, 2003: Ansals file a plea, seeking repossession of the theatre rejected on the ground that place of incident is to be preserved to appreciate evidence.
- April 24, 2003: Delhi high court awards Rs 180 million compensation to be paid to the relatives of victims.
- Nov 20, 2007: Court convicts all 12 accused, including Sushil and Gopal Ansal, in the case and sentences them to two years imprisonment.
- Jan 4, 2008: Delhi High Court grants bail to Ansal brothers and two other accused.
- Sep 11, 2008: Ansals sent to Tihar Jail after Supreme Court cancels their bail.
- Dec 19, 2008: Delhi high court upholds trial court order, convicting Ansal brothers but reduces their sentence from two years to one year.
- Jan 30, 2009: Supreme court grants bail to Ansal brothers.
- Oct 13, 2011: SC delivers Verdict on compensation case, criminal case against 6 accused -- including Ansal brothers -- is still on at the apex court
- Oct 9, 2012: Victims of the Uphaar tragedy refuse to accept Ansals’ offer to pay for more damages in lieu of ending the 15-year-old criminal case against the Ansal brothers.
- March 5, 2014: SC holds Sushil and Gopal Ansal guilty of criminal negligence in the 1997 Uphaar cinema fire, but leaves it to another bench to decide their punishment.
- Aug 10, 2015: Former Chief Justice of India HL Dattu constitutes a three-judge special bench to decide on the quantum of punishment that should be given to the Ansal brothers.
- Feb 9, 2017: SC orders one year in jail for Gopal Ansal and gives him four weeks to surrender. Sushil Ansal to stay out of jail because of his age. Both brothers still have to pay a fine of Rs 30 crore each.
In its review plea, AVUT said the apex court judgment “bestows an unwarranted leniency on convicts whose conviction in the most heinous of offences has been upheld by all courts, including this court and sentences imposed on them have been substituted with fine without assigning any reason”.
AVUT’s Neelam Krishnamurthy, who has emerged as the face of the families’ long fight for justice, was unhappy with Thursday’s verdict. Even after 20 years, justice continued to elude them, she said. Her 17-year daughter and 13-year-old son were killed in the fire.