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OVER FIVE years since a fire killed 92 persons in Kolkata’s AMRI Hospital, families of the victims are worrying about how much longer the trial will drag, with just one of 452 witnesses having been examined so far.
The fire had broken out on December 9, 2011. Police filed a case against 16 members of the hospital staff on several grounds of negligence; among the charges was culpable homicide not amounting to murder. The case went to trial last September.
At the last hearing on May 11 — the next date is Thursday — Calcutta High Court observed that the number of witnesses was beyond a “practical figure” and it was important to bring it down to ensure the trial does not get delayed. If all 452 were to be examined, Justice Joymalyo Bagchi observed, the trial could go on for many years.
Having waited for years, families of the victims agree. “They might have 452 witnesses because the case is a major one but they shouldn’t drag the case any longer,” said Paromita Guha Thakurta, who lost her mother in the fire and is now the president of the AMRI Victims’ Association.
“I personally feel they can classify witnesses into groups. Ten witnesses from deceased families, ten from injured families… that way it will help conclude the trial within a time-frame,” Thakurta said.
“We have been bearing court expenses for so long, and we have neither the courage nor the tenacity to fight further. Many don’t want to face court because it revives the memories of losing a dear one in front of your eyes,” she said.
“We have never wanted the case to drag, nor are we against a speedy trial. The merit of the case decides its fate,” defence lawyer Rana Mukherjee said.
The court’s observation about the number of witnesses came while it was hearing a plea by one of the 16 accused, cardiac specialist Dr Mani Chhetri, for quashing the proceedings against him. Dr Chhetri was then one of the directors of the hospital. “Dr Chhetri wasn’t involved in the day-to-day activities of the hospital; he was a medical director,” said defence lawyer Mukherjee.
Opposing Dr Chhetri’s plea, public prosecutor Saswata Gopal Mukherjee has argued that the trial has already begun. The prosecution told the court it is ready for a day-to-day trial if the high court passes such directions to a trial court.
The families, meanwhile, expressed their impatience. “Everyone knows the management is guilty. People did not die of burns; there were no precautionary measures,” said one relative. “The evacuation process was the worst. My entire life has changed after the tragedy and the result is that we are still on the suffering side. With so many witnesses, the case could drag for another 10 years.”
“The AMRI case should have set an example but unfortunately it has not happened,” said a relative of another victim.
The hospital is now partly operational. Annexe 1, where the fire broke out, remains shut. The main building and Annexe 2 are operational. The inpatient department has been operational since August 2014.