New Delhi, Sep 23: The "magnitude" of the Uphaar fire tragedy case, which had claimed 59 lives, "calls for a higher sentence" but the court has to limit itself to the choice available under the law, the Supreme Court said today.
The apex court's reasoning came on its August 19 order by which Ansal brothers, Sushil and Gopal, were sent 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 three-judge bench headed by Justice AR Dave 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 also comprising Justices Kurian Joseph and Adarsh Kumar Goel 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 -- Sushil, 76, and Gopal, 67.
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.
While giving the reasoning, the three-judge bench agreed with the view of Justice Misra that the one-year sentence awarded by the High Court needed to be enhanced to the maximum period of two years under Section 304-A (causing death by negligence) of IPC but in lieu of additional period of one year jail, the substantial amount of fine needs to be imposed.
The three-judge bench also said that on the principle of parity, the case of Gopal will stand on the same footing as that of Sushil. It also said the amount of fine could be used either for the purpose of setting up a Trauma Centre here or for upgrading Trauma Centres of hospitals under Delhi Government.
It also considered the advanced age of both the convicts saying it may not be fruitful to ask them to undergo rigorous imprisonment on payment of fine. Fifty-nine people, trapped in the balcony of the theatre in South Delhi, had died of asphyxia following the fire and over 100 were injured in the subsequent stampede on June 13, 1997 during the screening of Bollywood film 'Border'.
Earlier, the Ansals had challenged their conviction and claimed they were in no way responsible for the tragedy as the fire had been caused by a faulty DVB transformer.
The CBI had filed an appeal challenging the alteration in conviction and reduction of sentence by the Delhi High Court on December 19, 2008.
The sentence for the Ansals was reduced to one year as against the two-year sentence imposed by the sessions court. Association of Victims of Uphaar Tragedy (AVUT) had also approached the apex court seeking enhancement of sentence to the Ansals.