Sushil Ansal, 75, and Gopal  Ansal, 67, owners of Uphaar Cinema, will not go to jail. Neither will Harsarup Panwar, former fire officer at the cinema. In a judgment handed down on Wednesday, the Supreme Court upheld the conviction of the Ansal brothers, but concluded it would not be “fruitful” to send them to jail. Sushil Ansal was let off because he was old and the same condition had to be extended to his brother on the “principle of parity”. Besides, both had already done time for five to six months. Panwar would also be let off the prison sentence because of old age and illness.

All three would have to pay monetary penalties instead. The Ansal brothers will have to hand over Rs 60 crore, which will go into setting up a trauma centre in memory of the Uphaar victims. But this is not compensation. “We are concerned with imposition of sentence in a criminal case and not awarding damages in a civil case,” the court clarified, “Principles for deciding both are different.”

Eighteen years of a legal struggle seems to have come to a quiet end with the Supreme Court ruling. In June 1997, Uphaar Cinema caught fire during a screening of Border. Trapped inside the hall, at least 59 people died and 100 were injured. Escape was difficult because one of the exits had been blocked to make room for extra seats. The Ansal brothers knew about it. In the case that ensued, they were charged with criminal negligence. But in the 18 years since, men in their middle age have grown old and therefore beyond punishment.

The kindness of the court

The kindness of the apex court has been questioned along the way. In 2008, the Delhi High Court had halved the two-year sentence handed down to the Ansal brothers to one year. Six years later, in a split verdict delivered by the Supreme Court in 2014, Justice TS Thakur had upheld the reduced sentence, citing the delay in arriving at the verdict.

But this might not have been the usual grim story of judicial delay, where the accused are at the mercy of the courts and spend years in jail before they are even sentenced. According to the Association of the Victims of Uphaar Tragedy, it was the defendants who had held up proceedings, repeatedly asking for adjournments. It had fallen upon the victims’ kin to ask for early hearings.

It has also been noted that while the defence counsel got an extended hearing, the Central Bureau of Investigation and the representative of the victims got none when the Supreme Court on August 20 announced its decision to exact a fine and scrap the prison sentence.

Age of innocence

The animating impulse behind the court’s judgment in this case is not quite clear. It claims to be aware that the offence might have required a stiffer sentence but says it is constrained by law and the sentence already pronounced by the High Court. If it recognised the need for greater punishment, why dilute the sentence further?

However, any judgment that makes room for humanitarian concerns should perhaps be welcomed, especially since it could set a precedent for other deserving cases. The age of the accused is considered a mitigating circumstance in crimes of various degrees of severity. It is a factor in death penalty cases. Recently, in Jasbir Sing vs Tara Singh, a serious case of forgery, the Supreme Court upheld a High Court judgment decision to reduce the sentence because the accused were aging and had gone through years of trial.

But whose plight moves the court and whose does not? The Supreme Court was not so empathetic about Zaibunissa Kazi, charged with possessing arms in the 1993 Mumbai blasts case. In 2013, ailing, 70-year-old Zaibunissa was sentenced to five years on prison. Actor Sanjay Dutt, convicted of the same crime, also got the same sentence. The courts did not think Kazi’s age and illness were reason enough to lessen hers.

Unless the guiding factors for court decisions, such as “rarest of the rare”, “satisfying the collective conscience” and “fairly aged” are more clearly defined, the Supreme Court’s ruling may be open to this question: If you are not rich enough to afford quality legal counsel, how old is too old for punishment?