New Delhi: It’s been nearly 15 months since the Supreme Court held the Ansal brothers — Sushil and Gopal — guilty of negligence in the 1997 Uphaar theatre fire tragedy. But with the judges differing on the quantum of sentence and referring the matter to a three-judge bench, the families of the 59 killed still await justice. On the eve of the 18th anniversary of the horrific incident, some of them are asking why it has taken over a year for the hearing on the sentencing of the influential builders to even begin.
Neelam Krishnamurthy, president of the Association of Victims of the Uphaar Tragedy (AVUT), lost her two teenaged children in the tragedy and has been fighting a prolonged legal battle to seek justice for them. Speaking to The Wire on Friday, she said: “One year and three months have passed since the Ansals were convicted by the Supreme Court on March 5, 2014… To our knowledge, it is unprecedented that an order on sentencing remains pending over a year after conviction.”
Krishnamoorthy said there has also been a delay in framing charges in a 2003 tampering of evidence matter. Sushil Ansal, Gopal Ansal and five others were booked under various sections of the Indian Penal Code by the Chief Metropolitant Magistrate at Patiala House Court on May 31, 2014. One year later, only a single witness has been examined.
She contrasted the Uphaar delay with the speed with which Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J. Jayalalithaa got the apex court to hear her case after being sentenced to a four-year jail term on September 27, 2014. The Karnataka High Court had denied her immediate relief on the grounds that the conditions for granting bail to a pre-trial accused were different from those applicable to a convict. But the Supreme Court gave her bail on October 17, 2014.
AVUT had moved three applications for early hearing between October 8, 2014 and January 22, 2015. The Central Bureau of Investigation also moved an application for early hearing and the matter was finally taken up on April 21, 2015. However, on that day, an adjournment was sought by the Ansals. The victims have claimed that in the past 18 years, repeated attempts have been made to delay court proceedings so that the accused and convicted do not have to serve a prison term.
Agreeing with the victims’ claim, senior advocate Prashant Bhushan said: “It is unfortunate that adjournments are easily granted in the courts, including the Supreme Court. They are even more easily granted if the accused is an influential person who can afford a heavy-weight lawyer.”
The Uphaar victims are also at pains to point out that the delay in the case has affected them more than the accused. In his order confirming the HC’s decision to reduce the Ansal brothers’ sentence, Justice T.S. Thakur of the Supreme Court had said: “An equally important consideration that would weigh with any Court is the question of prolonged trial that the accused have faced and the delay of more than 16 years in the conclusion of the proceedings against them… There is no reason why in the case at hand the delayed conclusion of the proceedings should not have been taken by the High Court as a ground for reduced sentence of one year.” The victims’ families say this reasoning ignores the fact that the “delayed conclusions” were essentially the result of the accused themselves seeking repeated adjournments.
How the snail crawled
Krishnamurthy claimed that the case had progressed so far only because of the active intervention of the victim’s association. In July 2000, AVUT filed a criminal writ petition in the Delhi High Court to bring the tardiness of the trial to the notice of the judges. The HC subsequently directed the trial court to expedite the framing of charges.
Again in April 2002, AVUT moved a petition in the High Court because the trial was proceeding at a snail’s pace. “Statements of the available prosecution witnesses were either not recorded or were deferred for non-availability of defence counsel or some other pretext. Adjournments were granted to defence lawyers on one ground or the other, thus deferring the cross-examination of prosecution witnesses who were otherwise in attendance,” said Krishnamurthy.
It was then that the High Court passed an order that the trial court would hear the case for 10 days a month and that no adjournment would be granted because defence counsel were not available.
In May 2007, following an AVUT plea, the High Court directed the trial court to conclude the trial by August 31. It observed that “though the trial was required to be completed by 15th December, 2002, well after the period of four and a half years since the deadline fixed by this Court has expired, the trial is yet to be completed and on the contrary, it is still proceeding at a “snail’s pace”.”
The trial court finally delivered its judgment on November 20, 2007, convicting the 12 men charge-sheeted by the CBI. On December 19, 2008, the High Court confirmed the conviction of 6 out of the 12 convicted and halved the two-year sentence the Ansals had been given.
On appeal, it took the Supreme Court over five years to give its judgment in the case. Several adjournments were sought during the period by the defence counsel. Though the apex court reserved its judgment on April 17, 2013, it was pronounced over 10 months later on March 5, 2014. But there was no finality on the sentencing.