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Vijayawada Covid-19 Centre Fire: SC Revives Probe Against Hospital's Top Executives

Television journalists are seen outside the premises of the Supreme Court in New Delhi, on January 22, 2020. (REUTERS/Anushree Fadnavis)

Television journalists are seen outside the premises of the Supreme Court in New Delhi, on January 22, 2020. (REUTERS/Anushree Fadnavis)

The deadly blaze had broken out on August 9 at Hotel Swarna Palace, which was leased by Ramesh Hospitals as a Covid-19 care centre, allegedly in violation of relevant safety rules and norms put in place by the government.

The Supreme Court has revived the investigations against the top executives of Ramesh Hospitals into Vijayawada's Covid-19 centre fire tragedy, which had led to the death of 10 patients last month.

The deadly blaze had broken out on August 9 at Hotel Swarna Palace, which was leased by Ramesh Hospitals as a Covid-19 care centre, allegedly in violation of relevant safety rules and norms put in place by the government.

On Monday, a bench headed by Justice Rohinton F Nariman stayed the part of the Andhra Pradesh High Court’s order that had suspended all proceedings against managing director of Ramesh Hospitals, Dr Pothineni Ramesh Babu.

In its order on August 25, the High Court had noted that the state government had itself identified Hotel Swarna Palace as a quarantine centre for airline passengers, apart from giving permission to Ramesh Hospital for running a 30-bed Covid-19 care centre in this hotel.

Aggrieved by the High Court order, the state government came in appeal before the Supreme Court. Senior advocate Mukul Rohatgi contended that the proceedings could not have been stayed by the High Court even before the veracity and relevance of the documents being relied upon by Dr Ramesh Babu were yet to be examined. He said the high court was wrong in according such a relief to a man who had been absconding and not cooperating with the investigation from the very beginning.

Senior advocates KV Vishwanathan and Shyam Divan, representing Dr Ramesh Babu and hospital’s chairman MS Rama Mohan Rao, opposed the state’s plea on the ground that doctors and executives of the hospital cannot be booked for culpable homicide not amounting to murder for any lapses on the part of the hotel, which was a licensed enterprise, and identified by the government itself.

After hearing parties, the top court decided to resuscitate the investigations. “Having heard all learned counsel appearing on behalf of the parties, we are of the view that para 20 of the impugned order dated August 25, 2020 be stayed,” directed the bench.

However, it also said that Dr Ramesh Babu and Mohan Rao will not be arrested if they cooperate.

“The respondents in these Special Leave Petitions will not be taken, in the meanwhile, for custodial interrogation on their cooperating fully with the Police,” stated the order.

It disposed of the petitions by adding that the top executives may approach the courts in future for pre-arrest bail and appropriate orders can then be passed.

Following the FIR in this case against the doctors and executives of the Ramesh Hospitals, Tollywood actor Ram Pothineni had alleged that there is a “huge conspiracy” in the investigation of the fire accident. In a series of tweets, Ram pointed out this hotel was initially listed as a quarantine centre by the government, and it was later converted into a COVID Care Centre by Ramesh Hospitals.

“Had this fire accident taken place 3 weeks earlier, who would they blame?” read one of his tweets while another said that doctors cannot be blamed for fire safety in a hotel.

The actor’s posts did not go down well with the police, which said they will issue notices to the actor if he tries to hamper their investigation. Subsequently, TDP chief and former Chief Minister N Chandrababu Naidu came out in support of the actor and said the police are trying to suppress the freedom of speech by threatening to issue notices to Ram.