No jail, only Rs 60-crore fine for Uphaar owners

Theatre fire tragedy left 59 dead, over 100 injured

No jail, only Rs 60-crore fine for Uphaar owners

Eighteen years after 59 people perished in a cinema hall fire tragedy, the Supreme Court on Wednesday slapped theatre owners and real estate barons Sushil and Gopal Ansal with Rs 30 crore fine each and spared them of any fresh jail term.

The 1997 Uphaar fire incident which left over 100 others injured has raised serious questions about implementation of public safety laws.

The Wednesday verdict came as a major relief for the two industrialist brothers, who were told to pay Rs 60 crore to the Delhi government within three months. Both were held guilty of causing death by negligence  and other charges by the apex court on March 5, 2014 but the matter was referred to a three-judge bench following differences of opinion between two judges on the quantum of sentence.

After about a day-long hearing, a bench of Justices Anil R Dave, Kurian Joseph and Adarsh K Goel pronounced the sentence of fine only. The court did not give fresh jail term as the Ansal brothers had undergone imprisonment during the course of the 18-year-ong proceedings. The court said it would pass the detailed order later.

Sushil (77) and Gopal Ansal (67), had remained in jail for five months and four months, respectively.

Association of Victims of Uphaar Tragedy convener Neelam Krishnamurthy, who lost her daughter Unnati and son Ujwal in the fire incident, broke down after the verdict. Reacting angrily to the judgment, she said: “I am disappointed and disgusted with the verdict. This is the worst day of my life in the last 18 years of fight. The verdict shows the rich can kill and walk free after paying the fine.” 

Senior advocate Ram Jethmalani, appearing for the Ansals, assailed the 2014 verdict, pointing out that the owners of the cinema theatre cannot be held guilty of non-maintenance of transformer by the Delhi Vidyut Board, which led to the fire. He contended his right to seek review of the verdict was not barred.

To his plea, the bench said: “We are not exercising review jurisdiction. Our exercise is very very narrow. It is a reference matter.” Jethmalani insisted, “While hearing reference, the court can go into the merit of conviction.” He sought lenient view in the matter saying that the world over, the basic principle was never to impose maximum sentence.
Senior advocate K T S Tulsi, representing the victims’ association, countered him saying the counsel was raising stale arguments which had already been agitated before and rejected by the court. He said the victims wanted the Ansal brothers to be sent to jail and their sentence should be enhanced.

The bench said, “Our view is your conviction is confirmed.”

The court then asked senior advocate Harish Salve, representing the CBI, “How would you be satisfied, by sending the convicts to jail or paying money?” Salve said, “My instruction is to press for custody.”

A bench of Justices T S Thakur and Gyan Sudha Misra had last year held the Ansal brothers guilty of Section 304 A and other offences under the Indian Penal Code by holding there was contemptuous disregard of civic laws on their part.

They were more interested in making money, realising little that they owed a duty towards people as well, the court had said.

Justice Thakur retained one-year jail term of Sushil and Gopal Ansal as imposed by the Delhi High Court, while Justice Misra reduced the jail term to that already undergone by Sushil, considering his age, but enhanced the sentence of Gopal to two years.

Justice Misra also imposed a fine of Rs 100 crore on the Ansal brothers to be used for construction of trauma centre and super-speciality hospital at Dwarka here, which would be treated as extension of Safdarjung Hospital.

The court had noted that 59 people had perished in the tragedy and almost all of the victims had died due to asphyxiation as the doors of the South Delhi theatre running the Hindi movie ‘Border’ were closed on June 13,1997.
 

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