Almost two decades after 59 people died in a deadly fire at south Delhi's Uphaar cinema hall during the screening of Hindi movie 'Border', the country's apex court has held that the owners of the theatre, Gopal and Sushil Ansal, who were held guilty of "criminal negligence", are too old to undergo rigorous imprisonment, according to reports.
The Supreme Court noted that "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," the Indian Express quoted a three-judge bench led by Justice Anil R Dave as stating.
Sushil is 76, while Gopal is 67.
On August 19, the Ansal brothers were sentenced to two-year rigorous jail term if they failed to pay Rs 30 crore each within three months.
"We are conscious of the fact that the 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 the sentence," the Bench said.
"The fact that remains is that maximum sentence prescribed under the law is period of two years and the High Court had chosen, in the facts and circumstances of the case, to award sentence of one year which has been approved by Justice TS Thakur. In the dissenting opinion by Justice Gyan Sudha Misra, the modification is that the sentence be enhanced but giving an option to pay substantial amount in lieu of the enhanced sentence with further direction to reduce the jail sentence to the period already undergone, if the amount of fine in lieu of enhanced sentence is paid," the Bench said.
While Sushil has spent over five months in prison, Gopal was in jail for over four months immediately after the tragedy.
The matter had come before the three-judge bench after a two-judge bench of Justices Thakur and Misra (since retired) had differed on the quantum of sentence for Ansal brothers.
While Justice Thakur had retained the one-year jail term awarded by the Delhi High Court in 2008, Justice Misra had awarded the maximum punishment of two years with a rider that it can be reduced to the period already undergone behind bars on payment of Rs. 100 crore as fine collectively by them.
The Bench recommended that the amount of fine be used either for the purpose of setting up a trauma centre in Delhi or for upgrading existing ones, the Express report said.
Following is the chronology of events:
June 13, 1997: 59 people die of asphyxia in a fire in south Delhi's Uphaar cinema during the screening of Hindi movie "Border". Over 100 were injured in subsequent stampede.
July 22: Uphaar theatre owner Sushil Ansal and his son Pranav arrested in Mumbai.
July 24: Probe transferred from Delhi Police to Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI).
November 15: CBI files charge sheet against 16 accused including theatre owners Sushil and Gopal Ansal.
March 10, 1999: A sessions court presided by LD Malik initiates trial.
February 27, 2001: Court frames charges against accused under various sections, including sections 304 (culpable homicide), 304 A (causing death by negligent act) and 337 (hurt) of the IPC.
May 23: Recording of prosecution witnesses' testimony begins.
April 4, 2002: Delhi High Court asks trial court to try to wrap up the case by December 15.
January 27, 2003: Ansals' plea seeking re-possession of the theatre rejected on the ground that place of incident is to be preserved to appreciate evidence.
April 24: Delhi High Court awards Rs. 180 million compensation to be paid to relatives of victims.
September 4, 2004: Court starts recording statements of accused.
November 5, 2005: Recording of testimonies of defence witnesses begins.
August 2, 2006: Court concludes recording of testimony of defence witnesses.
August 9: Additional Sessions Judge Mamta Sehgal inspects the theatre.
February 14, 2007: Accused start advancing final arguments.
August 21: Association of Victims of Uphaar Tragedy (AVUT) approaches Delhi High Court seeking conclusion of trial within a time frame.
August 20, 2007: Senior advocate Harish Salve appears for CBI and advances final arguments.
August 21: Judgement reserved. Court fixes September 5 for pronouncement of verdict.
September 5: Court defers pronouncement of verdict and says it would fix the date of judgement on October 22.
October 22: Court fixes November 20 as date of verdict.
November 20, 2007: Court convicts all 12 accused, including Sushil and Gopal Ansal, in the case and sentences them to two years imprisonment.
January 4, 2008: Delhi High Court grants bail to Ansal brothers and two other accused.
September 11: Ansals sent to Tihar Jail after Supreme Court cancels their bail.
November 17: Delhi High Court reserves order on appeals filed by Ansals, other accused, CBI and AVUT.
December 19: Delhi High Court upholds trial court order convicting Ansal brothers but reduces their sentence from two years to one year. Upholds conviction of six out of 12 accused.
January 30, 2009: Supreme Court issues notice on petition filed by AVUT for enhancement of sentence of Ansal brothers and alteration of charge. Supreme Court also issues notice on plea of Ansals and others challenging their conviction.
2009: CBI files appeal in Supreme Court seeking enhancement of sentence of Ansals.
April 17, 2013: Supreme Court reserves order on appeals of Ansals, CBI and AVUT.
March 5, 2014: Supreme Court upholds conviction of Gopal and Sushil Ansal. However, two judges differ on sentence. Justice T S Thakur awards one year jail term, while Justice Gyan Sudha Mishra sentenced them to period undergone. Matter referred to three-judge bench.
April 21, 2015: The new bench couldn't start hearing.
August 11, 2015: Hearing begins on quantum of sentence.
August 19, 2015: Supreme Court allows Ansals to walk free, asks them to pay a fine of Rs. 30 crore each.
(With inputs from PTI)