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FPJ Legal: Delhi HC dismisses real estate baron Ansal's plea to cross examine investigating officer in Uphaar fire case

12:56 PM Sep 17, 2021 |

New Delhi: The Delhi High Court dismissed a plea by real estate baron Sushil Ansal seeking to cross examine the investigating officer following change of counsel representing him. Ansal is facing prosecution in case of tampering with evidence in the main Uphaar cinema fire tragedy matter.

The high court said a mere change of counsel would not suffice to recall the witness to put certain suggestion in the manner the new advocate desires. Ansal's plea is devoid of merits, it said.

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"The petitioner (Ansal) had engaged earlier counsel of his choice. He made a decision not to cross-examine, not one but 18 witnesses, probably, because the petitioner is facing charge of conspiracy only, and hence such decision viz not to cross-examine 18 witnesses cannot be said to an inadvertent act but may be a part of his strategy," Justice Yogesh Khanna said.

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Since a considerable delay has taken place, the plight of victims cannot be ignored, the court said. The evidence tampering case is at the stage of final arguments before the trial court.

The high court said it needs to see the intention to file such an application under section 311 (power to summon material witness or examine a person present) of the CrPC at a "deeply belated stage".

Ansal's counsel submitted before the high court that the trial court has disposed of his plea under section 311 of the CrPC and said he was seeking one more opportunity to cross examine the investigating officer.

The plea was opposed by Delhi Police which said the trial is at its final stage as the prosecution and defence evidence has already been closed and the lower court is presently hearing final arguments on behalf of the accused.

The Association of Victims of Uphaar Tragedy (AVUT) also opposed the plea saying it was a deliberate attempt to delay the trial and the application was completely frivolous and vague.

Also Read: 19 years of Uphaar tragedy: Awaiting justice, say families of victims

The high court, in its order, discussed some of the relevant dates of the case including that the prosecution evidence was closed on April 6 and defence evidence was concluded on August 25 and final arguments started from August 27. It was when the final arguments had started, this application was moved by Ansal before the trial court.

It said admittedly, prosecution witness DCP Amit Roy who had filed the second charge sheet in the case and to whom Ansal wants to cross examine, on the basis of documents filed/seized by him never considered the petitioner an accused and probably for this reason, the erstwhile counsel did not prefer to cross examine him.

"It appeared to be a conscious decision of the counsel for the petitioner, considering the nature of evidence against him," the high court said.

Earlier, senior advocate Vikas Pahwa, representing AVUT chairperson Neelam Krishnamoorthy, had argued that the new counsel of the accused has strategically filed an application under section 311 CrPC during final arguments to recall a witness who has already been cross examined extensively.

He had said that due to the delay caused in the trial, the victims of the tragedy had to approach the Delhi High Court several times, to get the charges framed against the accused in 2013 and even to expedite the trial in 2018 so that it is conducted in a time bound manner.

"Considering that the Uphaar tragedy happened in 1997, a delay has already been caused and the victims still await justice today in 2021 after 24 years of the incident," Pahwa had submitted.

The high court on September 9 had refused to stay the trial in the tampering of witness case.

Also Read: SC declines more surrender time to Uphaar owner

What is the case about?

The case relates to tampering with the evidence of the main case in which Sushil and Gopal Ansal were convicted and sentenced to two-year jail term by the Supreme Court.

The Ansal brothers along with a court staff Dinesh Chand Sharma, and other individuals -- P P Batra, Har Swaroop Panwar, Anoop Singh and Dharamvir Malhotra -- were booked in the present case of allegedly tampering with the evidence.

Panwar and Malhotra died during the course of the trial.

According to the charge sheet, the documents alleged to have been tampered with included a police memo giving details of recoveries immediately after the incident, Delhi Fire Service records pertaining to repair of transformer installed inside Uphaar, minutes of Managing Director's meetings and four cheques.

Out of the six set of documents, a cheque of Rs 50 lakh, issued by Sushil Ansal to self, and minutes of the MD's meetings, proved beyond doubt that the two brothers were handling the day-to-day affairs of the theatre at the relevant time, the charge sheet had said.

Uphaar Cinema tragedy

A total of 59 people lost their lives and over 100 were injured in the fire that broke out at the Uphaar cinema hall during the screening of Hindu film Border on June 13, 1997, as per a Financial Express report. The cinema was engulfed in flames when an overheated generator exploded in the building’s basement.

The case was lodged on the direction of the Delhi High Court while hearing a petition by Krishnamoorthy.

The accused are charged with offences under sections 120-B (criminal conspiracy), 109 (abetment), 201 (causing disappearance of evidence of offence) and 409 (criminal breach of trust) of the IPC.

The investigation was initially done by the Delhi Police and later transferred to the CBI. Uphaar Cinema owner Sushil Ansal and Gopal Ansal were awarded two years jail term by a local Delhi court. However, the apex court had released them in 2015 on the period already undergone in the jail on the condition that they pay Rs 30 crore fine each to be used for building a trauma centre in the national capital.

On February 9, 2017, the apex court had by a 2:1 majority verdict given relief to 78-year-old Sushil Ansal considering his "advanced age-related complications" by awarding him the jail term which he had already served.

The 1997 tragedy was not the first instance of such a fire at the Uphaar Cinema. Earlier in 1989, a fire had broken out at Uphaar Cinema due to a fault in the substation.

With PTI inputs

Also Read: Uphaar tragedy: SC dismisses curative plea by victims; no further jail term for Ansal brothers

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