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A week on, a 14-year lesson
Citing Uphaar case, mom warns against laxity
‘They were educated, old and had social status’

New Delhi, Dec. 15: Delhi resident Neelam Krishnamurthy wants to caution the people of Bengal and the families of the AMRI fire victims that the pursuit of the case could be a struggle once the headlines die down.

Krishnamurthy knows because she is a victim of the Uphaar cinema fire in Delhi and has for over 14 years been fighting a system that she says favours well-connected accused over ordinary justice seekers.

Her two children Unnati, 17, and Ujwal, 13 were among the 59 people killed in the fire of June 13, 1997, for which the cinema’s owners, real estate barons Gopal and Sushil Ansal, have together spent just about 10 months in jail.

In the immediate aftermath of the AMRI tragedy a week ago, chief minister Mamata Banerjee did win praise for a series of rapid responses. The Bengal government today named a former judge to probe the fire, over which seven AMRI directors are now in police custody.

But Krishnamurthy’s bitter experience suggests the events that unfold when attention shifts elsewhere are the most decisive factors in cases dealing with such tragedies.

Krishnamurthy fears that the way the Uphaar charges and then the sentences were diluted, the readiness with which bail was granted, and the tardiness of the trial’s progress could all be repeated in the AMRI case, too.

“I don’t really think that the AMRI victims will ever get justice. It’s the reality. For 15 years, I have dedicated my life to getting justice for the 59 who died in the Uphaar fire, but I am disappointed and frustrated. I see no end to my struggle,” Krishnamurthy, the president of the Association of the Victims of Uphaar Tragedy (Avut), told The Telegraph.

But the mother, whose petition for a fresh trial in the Uphaar case under more stringent laws will come up in the Supreme Court in February, added: “I am fighting on so that the Uphaar trial doesn’t set a precedent for cases such as the AMRI fire, allowing the defence to quote the Uphaar judgment to get its clients acquitted or have their sentences reduced.”

The AMRI directors have been arrested under Section 304 of the Indian Penal Code, which deals with culpable homicide not amounting to murder and carries a jail term between 10 years and life.

But Krishnamurthy remembers how the Ansals too were initially booked for the same offence before the CBI chargesheet diluted the charge to Section 304A (death by negligence), which can at most bring a two-year term.

“When the AMRI trial starts, I foresee the defence citing the Uphaar case as a precedent. In our case, the defence cited the Bhopal gas tragedy, where Union Carbide was charged only with negligence,” Krishnamurthy said.

She believes that people in very high offices who knew the Ansals manipulated the case to ensure quick bail. Sushil walked free after just 48 days in custody, although he had been in hiding for a month after the fire. He surrendered on July 22, 1997, and was granted bail on September 8, 1997.

“The reason was that the case had just been transferred from Delhi police to the CBI, and the agency said it couldn’t file the chargesheet in the stipulated 90 days,” Krishnamurthy said. “None of the bereaved families had asked for a CBI inquiry.... In the end, it led to bail for Sushil.”

The trial began in May 2001 and the verdict came only in November 2007, with the Ansals and 10 others pronounced guilty. The brothers got two years but some of their staff were awarded longer terms, up to seven years, under various charges. The court granted bail to the accused, so they stayed free as they appealed in the high court.

In December 2008, the high court halved the brothers’ sentences while acknowledging the “horrific nature of the tragedy” and heaping blame on the Ansals and government agencies for “giving the go-by to safety norms”.

The brothers had already been in jail since September 2008 on an apex court order (for allegedly tampering with evidence) but they were released on January 4, 2009. That day, the high court suspended their sentence and extended their bail till the conclusion of the hearing of their appeals.

Explaining its order, the court said the Ansals were “educated”, “have a good social status”, “have no criminal record” and are “old”. All these, Krishnamurthy fears, could be cited as precedent in the AMRI case.

As for the Uphaar case, she said: “It is still chugging along. The final hearing is on February 7 next year on my appeal that the accused be tried under Section 304 and not Section 304A.”

She added: “I know that my struggle may end in disappointment. But people have to understand that if we, the people of this country, sit at home and do nothing, neither the government nor the judiciary will do anything to help us.”

Krishnamurthy has written to Sonia Gandhi and met President Pratibha Patil, requesting them to see that a law is passed to deal with cases of manmade disasters. Two years on, she is still waiting.


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