Eighteen years after 59 people were killed in a blaze inside Delhi’s Uphaar cinema hall, its owners Gopal and Sushil Ansal, who have been held guilty of “criminal negligence”, have escaped further jail term, with the Supreme Court noting that Sushil is “fairly aged” and his younger brother deserves “parity” with him. Sushil is 75, while Gopal is 67.
“We have noted the fact that as appellant No. 1 (Sushil) is fairly aged, it may not be fruitful to ask him to undergo rigorous imprisonment. On the ground of parity and on the peculiar facts of this case, so far as appellant No. 2 (Gopal) may also not be constrained to undergo the sentence, if he also pays the same amount of fine,” said a three-judge bench led by Justice Anil R Dave.
Releasing its detailed judgment Wednesday — more than a month after it said in open court that the Ansal brothers did not necessarily need to go back to jail — the bench held that “ends of justice would meet” if the real estate barons pay Rs 30 crore each as fine.
The bench, also comprising Justice Kurian Jospeh and Justice Adarsh K Goel, said the amount of fine can be used either for the purpose of setting up a trauma centre in Delhi or for upgrading existing ones.
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, called the development “extremely unfair”.
“The Supreme Court has sent former Haryana Chief Minister O P Chautala to jail for 10 years and he is almost 80 years old. Sahara’s chief Subrata Roy is also 67. If they can be incarcerated by the apex court, why not Ansals? Should an accused be entitled to benefit of advanced age when he can manage to delay the trial? When this incident occurred, Ansal brothers were in their 40s and 50s. It is extremely unfair,” Krishnamoorthy told The Indian Express.
She added that the Association of Victims of Uphaar Tragedy will file a review petition against this judgment.
In its 17-page judgment, the court agreed with the view taken by Justice Gyan Sudha Misra who, by a split verdict of a two-judge bench, had said that the Ansal brothers’ punishment should be enhanced to two years under Section 304A (causing death by rash and negligent act) of the IPC but the sentence should be substituted by “substantial” amount of fine. It was owing to this split verdict that the matter had been referred to the three-judge bench for determining the punishment.
But while Justice Misra had imposed a fine of Rs 100 crore on the Ansal brothers, the three-judge bench reduced it to Rs 60 crore, accepting a plea by their lawyer Ram Jethmalani for slashing the penalty. The judgment, however, did not specify reasons for reducing the penalty amount.
The judgment added: “We are conscious of the fact that a matter of this magnitude may call for a higher sentence, but the court has to limit itself to the choice available under the law prescribing sentence.” But the judgment cited no other reason apart from age for why the Ansal brothers were not being sent to jail under Section 304A, which entails a maximum two-year jail term.
Discussing the principle of sentencing, the court said that an appropriate sentence has to be awarded by taking into consideration the gravity of the offence, the manner of commission, the age of the accused and other mitigating and aggravating circumstances. “The sentence should neither be excessively harsh nor ridiculously low,” it maintained and added that the “facts and circumstances of the case” warranted substitution of jail term with monetary fine.