Two jailed for evidence theft after 1997 Delhi cinema blaze that killed 59

Owners of Uphaar movie hall sentenced to seven years as victim families hail the 'long overdue' verdict

A Delhi court sentenced two businessmen to seven years in prison on Monday after finding them guilty of stealing crucial evidence related to their trial over a deadly 1997 cinema hall fire.

Fifty-nine moviegoers were killed in the blaze at Delhi’s Uphaar cinema hall owned by businessmen brothers Sushil and Gopal Ansal.

Both were convicted and briefly jailed for manslaughter in 2007 for the blaze deaths, but the case got embroiled in controversy over inordinate judicial delays and legal meanderings.

The trial court last month found the brothers guilty of tampering with evidence and criminal conspiracy after investigations found that “critical documents” related to the cinema fire trial were either missing or destroyed from the Delhi High Court in 2003.

The victims' families had accused the brothers of bribing a court employee to steal or destroy the documentary evidence from the court premises to sabotage the trial into their role in the fire incident. A court agreed.

While sentencing the two property barons, Chief Metropolitan Magistrate Pankaj Sharma said the brothers stole the documents to try to “secure their acquittal and put a stumbling block in the trial”.

The court said the act amounted to “defiling the justice administration system”.

The judge ordered their immediate arrest and imposed a fine of rupees 45 million ($6 million). A former court employee, Dinesh Chandra Sharma, and two others were also sentenced to prison on similar charges. Two other accused died during the trial.

Neelam Krishnamoorthy, who lost her two children in the blaze, expressed happiness over the conviction of the brothers, saying the court has vindicated their decades-long stand.

“This was long overdue, it has taken me a quarter of a century to get justice for my children,” Ms Krishnamoorthy told The National.

“My husband and I have spent 25 years of life going to court in the hope of getting justice as I strongly believe there can be no peace without justice and my children deserve it,” she said.

The Uphaar cinema blaze case has remained in the national headlines for decades and symbolise India’s ineffective justice system.

Considered as the worst fire tragedy in the country, 59 people were killed and more than 100 were injured in the blaze during the screening of Bollywood blockbuster Border.

The fire caused, by a short circuit in the car park, had engulfed the entire building that lacked fire safety mechanism.

Most people died in the ensuing stampede or were asphyxiated as the exit doors were illegally blocked by extra chairs, court had found.

A trial court in 2007 had convicted the brothers of manslaughter and sentenced them to two years in prison but within weeks they were granted bail by the Delhi High Court. The Supreme Court stepped in and cancelled their bail amid a nationwide outrage.

But the Delhi High Court in 2008 reduced their sentencing to one-year before the Supreme Court again granted them bail in 2009.

The Supreme Court in 2015 suspended their jail terms on the condition that the brothers pay a fine of 600 million rupees for the construction of a medical trauma centre in Delhi.

The apex court in 2011 also halved the 250 million rupees payout to the victim families.

The court rulings had caused furore among the victim families, who had termed the undue judicial reprieves to the powerful businessmen as a failure of India’s justice system.

Updated: November 16th 2021, 11:01 AM