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Uphaar fire case: SC seeks Ansals’ reply on pleas of CBI & victims

New Delhi:The Supreme Court sought responses from real estate barons Sushil Ansal and Gopal Ansal on pleas of the CBI and the victims’ body seeking review of the 2015 verdict in the Uphaar fire tragedy case asking them to serve a two-year jail term if they fail to pay Rs 30 crore each as fine.

A three-judge bench headed by Justice Ranjan Gogoi, which fixed the review pleas for open court hearing on December 14, also extended the order restraining the Ansal brothers from leaving India till disposal of the petitions. “We issue notice and will hear the review petitions on next Wednesday. In the meantime, we direct you (Sushil and Gopal Ansal) not to leave the country till disposal of review petitions,” the bench, also comprising Justices Kurian Joseph and Adarsh Kumar Goel, said.

Senior advocate Harish Salve, representing CBI, said that “the issue is on narrow compass” and the notices can be issued to the respondents on both the review petitions filed by the agency and Association of Victims of Uphaar Tragedy (AVUT). Senior lawyer Salman Khurshid, appearing for the Ansal brothers, accepted notices and sought some time to prepare his responses to the review pleas saying “we do not know what are the grounds in them.”

He also assured the bench on behalf of Ansals that they will not leave the country till disposal of the review pleas. AVUT, represented by another senior lawyer KTS Tulsi, said it was ready for advancing arguments and should be granted adequate time on December 14 when the pleas are heard. The bench said it would try to conclude the hearing on next date itself.

On Monday, the apex court had restrained Sushil and Gopal Ansal from leaving the country till listing of the review plea of AVUT which, citing a media report, had apprehended that they may flee. 59 people had died of asphyxia when a fire broke out during the screening of Bollywood movie ‘Border’ in Uphaar theatre in Green Park area of South Delhi on June 13, 1997.

Over 100 were also injured in the subsequent stampede. Earlier, Tulsi had said that the Ansals be restrained from travelling abroad without seeking the permission of the court during the pendency of present review petition. AVUT, through its President Neelam Krishnamoorthy, who had lost her two teenaged children in the blaze, cited a report claiming the convicts were “on the verge of fleeing the country”.

Recently, AVUT was assured by the court that a new bench would be constituted to hear the review petitions filed by the CBI and the Association. The apex court had, on August 19, 2015 sent the brothers to two years rigorous jail term if they failed to pay Rs 30 crore each within three months. Both the convicts deposited the fines to avoid further jail term.

While Sushil has spent over five months in prison, Gopal was in jail for over four months soon after the incident. AVUT and the CBI have sought the review of the verdict in an open court hearing which was accepted by a three-judge bench headed by Justice AR Dave, now retired.

In its review plea, AVUT had said the apex court judgement “bestow an unwarranted leniency on convicts whose conviction in the most heinous of offences has been upheld by all courts including this court and sentences imposed on them have been substituted with fine without assigning any reason.”

“The sentences of the convicts have been reduced to the period undergone without taking into account the gravity of their offence,” it had said.

The CBI, in its review plea, has said the apex court did not give it time to put its views forth which resulted in “miscarriage of justice”. The agency has said “due to the paucity of time on the day on which this case was heard, the prosecution could not adequately put across the reasons why this court should not substitute jail sentence with a monetary fine. “This petition also seeks to raise issue of an apparent error of law in the judgement and order of this court which has occasioned a grave miscarriage of justice.” CBI had also claimed that “callousness” of Ansal brothers led to 59 people being trapped and suffocated to death in the theatre.

The apex court, in its 2015 verdict, had sent Ansal brothers to two years rigorous jail term if they failed to pay Rs 30 crore each within three months. In a judgement on September 23, 2015, the bench had said the “magnitude” of the case “calls for a higher sentence” but the court has to limit itself to the choice available under the law.

Earlier, a two-judge bench of justices TS Thakur and Gyan Sudha Misra (since retired) had in a March 5, 2014 order differed on the quantum of sentence for Ansal brothers. While Justice Thakur had retained the one-year jail term awarded by Delhi High Court in 2008, Justice Misra had pronounced the maximum punishment of two years with a rider that it can be reduced to the period already undergone behind bars on joint payment of Rs 100 crore as fine by them.

The matter was later referred to a three-judge bench headed by Justice Dave (since retired) which enhanced the sentence to the maximum period of two years under section 304-A (causing death by negligence) of IPC if they failed to pay the fine amount. The three-judge bench had also said that on principle of parity, the case of Gopal will stand on the same footing as that of Sushil.