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Indian Court Rejects Harsher Sentences for Bhopal Disaster

Activists of All India Youth Federation raise slogans against America, Indian government and Warren Anderson, the head of Union Carbide Corp. at the time of the gas leak, during a candlelight vigil in New Delhi, India (File Photo)
Activists of All India Youth Federation raise slogans against America, Indian government and Warren Anderson, the head of Union Carbide Corp. at the time of the gas leak, during a candlelight vigil in New Delhi, India (File Photo)

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Anjana Pasricha

India’s top court has turned down a plea to reopen a case aimed at getting a stronger punishment for those found guilty for the 1984 gas leak in Bhopal, which killed thousands of people. The judgment has disappointed activists who have campaigning for more than a quarter century for stronger penalties for what is widely called the world’s worst industrial disaster.

Public outrage

A five-judge bench of the Supreme Court refused a plea by the government to reinstate stronger charges against seven Indian employees of U.S. chemical firm Union Carbide, whose plant in Bhopal leaked toxic gases on sleeping residents 27 years ago.  

The two-year prison sentences handed down to them last year had triggered public outrage. Representatives for the victims complained those found guilty came off with relatively light punishments for a disaster that killed thousands and left tens of thousands more struggling with its consequences.

Bhopal victim activists say the seven men got away with light sentences because a 1996 court ruling had reduced the charge against them to the relatively minor one of death by negligence.    

After the government promised to seek harsher penalties, public prosecutors approached the top court last August to reopen the trial and restore the more serious charge of culpable homicide.    

But the Supreme Court has said the government has not given sufficient reason to build a case of culpable homicide. The court also questioned why the government waited for 14 years to reinstate the stronger charges.      

Victims speak out


Victims in Bhopal and activists expressed deep disappointment with the verdict.

Survivor Rasheeda Beehas, who been on the forefront of the fight for justice for the Bhopal victims, says it has been established that negligence of officials of the Union Carbide plant in India and the United States caused the disaster, and she had hoped that the Supreme Court would ensure that those guilty of causing so many deaths and so much suffering would get 20-year prison terms.

Rachna Dhingra is an activist with the Bhopal Group for Information and Action, which is working to rehabilitate victims and get speedier justice for them. She blames the government’s investigative agency, the Central Bureau of Investigation, for mishandling the case.

“Here we are stuck with a prosecution that really has no interest, no competence in fighting this case," she said. "This attitude has to change.”

The activists and campaigners have promised to carry on their fight.

Seeking justice

The government says it is doing its best to see that justice is done. It has also filed a petition in the Supreme Court to seek higher compensation for the victims from Dow Chemical company, which bought Union Carbide in 2001.

Under the original compensation package, which was brokered in 1989, Union Carbide agreed to pay the Indian government $470 million in damages.

The Indian government says 3,500 people died in the days after the disaster. Activists put the toll at more than 20,000, pointing out that many have died in the years since from the lingering effects of the toxic leak.

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