Uphaar fire: 7-yr jail to Ansals for tampering with evidence
The Ansal brothers were sentenced to two years by the Supreme Court in August 2015 in the main fire case that stunned the Capital 24 years ago and led to major changes in fire safety norms.
A Delhi court on Monday handed a seven-year jail term each to builders Gopal and Sushil Ansal for tampering with evidence pertaining to the 1997 Uphaar cinema fire which claimed 59 lives, and noted in a scathing verdict that their regrets over the incident were “hollow”.
The Ansal brothers were sentenced to two years by the Supreme Court in August 2015 in the main fire case that stunned the Capital 24 years ago and led to major changes in fire safety norms. 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 for their criminal negligence given their age.
On Monday, however, chief metropolitan magistrate Dr Pankaj Sharma ordered a seven-year jail term and fine of ₹2.25 crore each on the two. The court also cancelled their bail bonds, and directed that they be taken into custody immediately.
The brothers were taken into custody from the court and are currently in jail.
“It is important to note that in a sentencing process, it is not only the crime that is important but the criminal and his/her circumstances are also equally important. The circumstances during which the instant crime was committed show the deep disrespect which the convicts had for the law and the judicial process and for the victims,” the court ruled.
The judge said that “the foundation of judiciary is premised on the trust and confidence of the people and any action which is aimed to thwart the said foundation cannot be permitted and is required to be dealt with utmost strictness”.
“This case is not only related to prosecution and Association of Victims of Uphaar Tragedy (AVUT) but the sentencing in this case must respond to the cry of the society,” he noted in the order.
While pronouncing the order, the court said, “I think it is very hard to reach out to this decision given the complexities involved. After some thinking over some nights, I have come to this conclusion that they deserve punishment.”
During the trial in the main case related to the tragedy, the Ansals, along with five others, including the then court staff, had torn and defaced crucial documents of the prosecution evidence in a bid to secure an acquittal. The Ansals were, however, convicted in the matter.
On October 8, the city court convicted again the Ansal brothers and three others in the case related to tampering with the evidence on different counts for abetment of offence, causing disappearance of evidence, criminal breach of trust by a public servant, and criminal conspiracy.
The judge noted in the verdict that the convicts “attacked the very purity and sanctity” of the justice system, thereby making it the “victim”.
It further said that the “high handedness” of the accused to benefit in the trial by any means demonstrated the scant regard they had for the justice delivery system, which is the bedrock of democracy.
“The manner in which they subjected the process of law to desecration is no less defiling the justice administration system,” the court said. “The brazen attitude of the accused is reflective from their conduct as after the destruction of evidence, they vehemently opposed the prosecution plea for adducing secondary evidence,” the court added.
Along with the Ansal brothers, the court held two of their employees, PP Batra and Anoop Singh, and former court staff Dinesh Chand Sharma guilty. On Monday, the court also sentenced Sharma, Batra and Singh to seven years imprisonment and imposed a fine of ₹3 lakh on them. Two others booked in the case -- Har Swaroop Panwar and Dharamvir Malhotra -- died during the course of the trial.
The judge said that given the enormity of the offence,and the manner of its execution by the custodian of the judicial records in conspiracy with other convicts, it calls for an appropriate sentence proportionate to the gravity of the offence and capable of having deterrent effect on other potential offenders.
“Collective cry of the society must be responded by way of appropriate punishment to prevent reoccurrence of such crimes. The plea of the prosecution and the victims that exemplary punishment handed over to the convicts has substance and same is required to prevent such incidents in future,” the court said, adding that an inadequate sentence would do more harm to the justice system and would undermine public confidence in the efficacy of law.
The court awarded seven years imprisonment to all the convicts for criminal conspiracy (IPC 120B) and criminal breach of trust by public servant (409 IPC). For the offence of destruction of evidence (IPC 201), the court awarded the convicts a three year jail term, adding that all the sentences would run concurrently.
The judge said that no amount of compensation can alleviate the agony, trauma and the pain suffered by the family members of the victims; however, compensation in the form of money can provide some succour to them.
“Accordingly, the amount of fine imposed on each convict shall be paid as compensation to the victim AVUT (Association of The Victims of Uphaar Tragedy) considering the mandate of Section 357 CIPC after disbursing the cost incurred by the prosecution,” the judge ordered.
“My stand has been vindicated and my faith in the judiciary has been restored... it took me about quarter century to fight and get justice. All that I asked for was justice for my children, but it was denied to me. But eventually we succeeded. Today I feel that my children and 57 others who were victims of the incident will be at peace because justice has been done.” said Neelam Krishnamoorthy, president of AVUT, who lost two children, Unnati (17) and Ujjwal (13), to the tragedy.
Senior advocate Pramod Dubey, who represented Gopal Ansal in the case, said, “The judgment passed by the trial court is contrary to the material available on record. The sentence is very harsh and no justification has been given. None of the mitigating circumstances were taken into consideration while passing the order on sentence. Sentence is against the rule of penology. We will take our remedy available on law.”
“The judgment on the point of conviction as well as the sentence is based on complete erroneous appreciation of the prosecution case, the evidence, the prevalent laws and binding judgments of the Supreme Court.My client had admitted most of the document even before the trial started in the main Uphaar case and there was no benefit or motive available to him for the obliteration, disappearance or defacement of the documents. I will lodge an appeal and will try to get my client on bail as soon as possible,” said Tanveer Ahmed Mir, the lawyer for 82-year-old Sushil Ansal.