Ansals guilty in Uphaar fire, says high court but reduces jail term (Second lead)

December 19th, 2008 - 10:06 pm ICT by IANS  

New Delhi, Dec 19 (IANS) Upholding the guilty verdict against real estate tycoons the Ansal brothers, the Delhi High Court Friday indicted them for their “complete disregard” of safety norms in the Uphaar theatre owned by them that led to the deaths of 59 cinema goers in the 1997 fire tragedy. However, the court halved their sentence and that of many others while acquitting five in the case.Upholding the trial court’s guilty verdict against Gopal and Sushil Ansal, Justice Ravindra Bhat reduced their two-year jail term by a year, citing their advanced age and the fact that they were respectable citizens with no criminal background.

The Association of Victims of Uphaar Tragedy (AVUT), which has been fighting legal battle for over 11 years and pressing to get the jail term increased, termed the high court verdict as a “travesty of justice”.

Ruling on a review petition, Justice Bhat rejected the appeals of the Ansal brothers against their two-year sentence and also a plea by AVUT to enhance the sentence of the guilty.

In his over 500-page judgment, Justice Bhat came down heavily on the Ansal brothers.

“Corporate social responsibility cannot be ignored while keeping in mind the security of the people. This case has shown how complete diregard to this duty - more in the nature of trust, towards those who visit the premises, and are often unaware of the precise exit points in cases of emergencies - has resulted in a disaster,” Bhat noted, while imposing a fine of Rs.6,000 each on them.

The court also rejected their plea that they were not responsible for the decision to increase the seats in the cinema hall, which had blocked the way to the exit during the fire, leading to a stampede. The court said, “As leaders of the enterprise, they were under a full-time duty to ensure the viewers’ safety at all times.”

However, taking note of the advanced age of the brothers and also that they have no previous criminal record and are educated, respectable members of the society, the court reduced their sentence.

Citing absence of evidence against them, the court acquitted five other accused. These were: R.K. Sharma, theatre manager who had been given a seven-year imprisonment, S.S. Sharma and N.D. Tiwari of the Municipal Corporation of Delhi who had been slapped a two-year jail term; and N.C. Chopra and A.K. Gera of the Delhi Vidyut Board (DVB), who had been given a seven-year term by the trial court.

One of the managers of the hall, Ajit Choudhary, died recently while serving his jail term.

The high court also reduced the jail terms of H.S. Panwar, a Delhi Fire Service official, from seven years to one year; gatekeeper Manmohan Uniyal from five to two years; and Brij Mohan Satija and Bir Singh, DVB officials, from seven years to two years.

The court also pulled up the investigating agency, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) for lapses.

“There were glaring lapses in the licensing department of the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD), the Delhi Vidyut Board (DVB) and the electrical inspector’s office. Accused after accused argued that several senior level officials in these departments were either kept out of the orbit of investigation, or were deliberately not sent up as accused. But despite the lower court’s direction, nothing seems to have happened even after one year of the judgement,” observed the judge.

The high court asked the investigating agency to probe the lapses by March 15 next year and submit the report to the trial court.

Neelam Krishnamurthy, of AVUT, broke down in the court after the ruling. “I have lost two children in the fire,” she sobbed.

“I am shocked and stunned that the quantum of sentence has been reduced. For the 4,206 days (11 and a half years) that the victims’ families have fought this battle, we get six days each for each kid that died? I am shocked. People should no longer approach courts for justice,” Krishnamurthy said as she emerged distraught from the court.

On the afternoon of June 13, 1997, 59 people, including several women and children, were killed due to asphyxia when a fire broke out in the south Delhi cinema hall’s transformer in the basement during the screening of Hindi film “Border”.

On Nov 20 last year, a trial court held the Ansal brothers guilty along with three others under Section 304-A of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) (causing death due to rash and negligent act) and sentenced them to two years imprisonment.

The high court on Jan 4 had granted bail to the Ansal brothers and two other convicts.

However, in September the Supreme Court cancelled their bail and asked them to complete the sentence given to them by the trial court.

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