Eighteen years after 59 people were killed in a blaze inside the Uphaar cinema hall in New Delhi, its owners Gopal and Sushil Ansal, held guilty of “criminal negligence”, escaped further jail term Wednesday when the Supreme Court ruled that a penalty of Rs 60 crore was adequate punishment. The Ansal brothers, who are real estate barons, have served a jail term between four to five months during the legal wrangle.
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Neelam Krishnamoorthy, who lost her daughter Unnati (17) and son Ujwal (13) in the June 13, 1997 incident and had been spearheading the legal battle for the victims, broke down after the court order.
“Eighteen years ago, I lost faith in god and today, I lost faith in the judiciary. I am disappointed and disgusted. Money power augurs so well with the institutions that the death of 59 persons becomes a mere statistic,” an inconsolable Krishnamoorthy told The Indian Express.
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Minutes earlier, a three-judge bench led by Justice Anil R Dave said that the court would order the Ansal brothers to pay Rs 30 crore each within three months and the money deposited with the Delhi government could be utilised appropriately.
The civil liability of compensation in this case was decided by the Supreme Court in 2011. It had ordered Rs 10 lakh each for the next of kin of victims above 20 years of age, and Rs 7.5 lakh for victims under 20 years. The Ansal brothers, who owned Ansal Theatre and Clubotels (P) Ltd which ran Uphaar cinema, were asked to pay 85 per cent of the total compensation awarded.
The bench, also comprising Justices Kurian Joseph and Adarsh K Goel, expressed its mandate in open court after the lawyers appearing for the Ansal brothers, CBI and the Association of the Victims of Uphaar Tragedy (AVUT) concluded arguments.
“We will ask them to pay Rs 30 crore each… that’s it. We will give our reasoning tomorrow. A detailed order will be pronounced tomorrow,” the bench said as it wrapped up the hearing on the matter which had been referred to it to decide the quantum of punishment for the Ansal brothers.
The conviction of the Ansals under IPC Section 304A (causing death due to rash and negligent acts) was upheld by the top court in March 2014 but it had remained unclear whether the brothers would go to jail under the penal provision that can fetch a maximum two years’ imprisonment.
The two judges, who had confirmed the conviction, gave a split verdict on the punishment for Ansals and the matter was then placed before the three-judge bench.
In 2007, the trial court sentenced the Ansal brothers to two years in jail but next year the Delhi High Court reduced the sentence by half.
On Wednesday, 17 months after the case was referred to it, the bench, towards the end of the day-long hearing, said that it would ask the Ansal brothers to pay Rs 30 crore each and no further jail term was called for.
This led to a commotion but that got over when senior advocate KTS Tulsi, who represented the victims, started walking out of the court room, confirming to Krishnamoorthy that the court had made a decision.
During the arguments, Tulsi had sought more stringent punishment for the businessmen so that such incidents do not recur and the punishment be seen as a deterrent. He had urged the bench to award the maximum jail term under Section 304A.
Appearing for the CBI, senior advocate Harish Salve, had earlier told the bench that the agency was arguing for custody and more jail term for the Ansal brothers. When the court asked Salve whether the CBI wanted convicts to be sent to jail or paying money for a trauma centre, he replied: “My instruction is to press for custody.” He said that CBI had always argued for the maximum punishment against the Ansals in the case and the stand remained consistent.
Senior advocate Ram Jethmalani defended the convicts in the case. He argued that the Ansals could not be held guilty for non-maintenance of a transformer which led to the fire. But the bench asked him to confine his arguments to the point of sentence since the conviction had already been confirmed.
Jethmalani then sought a lenient view, saying the legal principle the world over was not to impose the maximum sentence. He had also expressed willingness by the brothers to pay generously for any benevolent cause.
Upholding the Delhi High Court verdict of 2008, Justice T S Thakur had said the brothers would undergo a sentence of one year each, as awarded by the High Court.
However, Justice Gyan Sudha Misra, holding that the Ansals should undergo a sentence of two years, substituted the second year’s sentence with a fine of Rs 100 crore, to be paid equally by the brothers. She also directed that in view of his advanced age, Sushil Ansal’s sentence would be one that he had already undergone.