25 years after fire, trial court in Delhi to decide on Uphaar de-sealing

ByAbraham Thomas, New Delhi
Apr 27, 2023 11:50 PM IST

A three-judge bench noted that the trial in the main Uphaar case was over and that the Ansal brothers had deposited fines of ₹30 crore each

The Supreme Court on Thursday allowed real estate barons Sushil and Gopal Ansal to approach a Delhi court to unseal the Uphaar Cinema hall, more than 25 years after a fire at the theatre killed 59 people, observing that there can be “no obstacle” in returning the complex to its owners.

Interiors of Uphaar Cinema at Green Park in New Delhi. (HT Archive)
Interiors of Uphaar Cinema at Green Park in New Delhi. (HT Archive)

A three-judge bench, headed by justice KM Joseph, noted that the trial in the main Uphaar case was over and that the Ansal brothers — the former directors of the Ansal Group who were convicted in the trial — had deposited fines of 30 crore each, as directed by the top court in August 2015.

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The theatre is owned by Ansal Theatres and Clubhotels Private Limited, of which the Ansal brothers are directors.

The other stakeholders in the case – the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), the Delhi Police and the Association of Victims of Uphaar Tragedy (AVUT) — on Thursday informed the court that they had no pending claim over the cinema hall.

The bench, also comprising justices BV Nagarathna and Ahsanuddin Amanullah, said, “In these circumstances, there can be no obstacle in the appellant being given back the sealed theatre.”

The delivery of any property regarding which a trial has concluded is governed by Section 452(2) of the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC).

The court said that if the Ansals were to make an application under Section 452 for the release of the theatre, the trial court concerned will decide the matter “according to the law” and “keeping in mind the stand taken by CBI, Delhi Police and AVUT.”

The trial court was directed to decide the matter at the earliest and no later than 10 weeks from the date that it is handed the top court’s order.

A major fire tore through Uphaar cinema during the screening of the Hindi film Border on June 13, 1997, stunning the national capital and leading to widespread reforms in fire safety norms.

The Ansal brothers were convicted for their negligence leading to the incident and sentenced to two years by the Supreme Court in August 2015. But they avoided further imprisonment after spending about five months in prison when the apex court, in August 2015, ruled that a penalty of 30 crore each and time already served was adequate punishment given their age.

Ansal Theatres and Clubhotels Private Limited — which operated the theatre in Green Park — approached the Delhi high court in March 2009 seeking to reopen the cinema hall. The court turned down their appeal, noting that the trial was ongoing in the Supreme Court, which was hearing an appeal by the Ansal brothers, challenging their conviction.

AVUT, meanwhile, claimed during the course of the hearing in this case that the theatre held the key to determine the guilt of the then deputy commissioner of police (licensing) Amod Kanth, who had been summoned by a local court to join the trial for his alleged order permitting the Ansals to retain 37 seats more than what was permitted by the Cinematograph Act of 1952.

The company subsequently moved the Supreme Court in March 2010, where the matter had been pending since.

On April 20 this year, the top court quashed the summons issued to Kanth, shutting the trial in the case.

AVUT on Thursday told the court that the Ansals mortgaged the cinema hall to pay the fine of 60 crore, which meant that the appellant company was in possession of the theatre. However, AVUT clarified that they had no claim over the property.

ASG Nataraj told the court that once an application under CrPC Section 452(2) is moved, it is for the court concerned to determine whom the property is to be released to. “Whether I have any objection or not is immaterial. It is for the concerned court to determine based on the nature of claim, title and any pending liabilities over the property in question,” he said.

Senior advocate Mathai Paikaday, appearing for the Ansals, pointed out that the CBI had filed an affidavit before the Delhi high court, prior to the March 2009 decision, claiming to have no objection to the premises being unsealed. He also pointed out that in September 2003, the high court ordered for the release of the cinema hall. His only anxiety was to use the premises lying vacant for over 25 years.

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