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Thursday, May 19, 2011

SC denies plea for enhanced punishment for Bhopal gas tragedy accused

The Indian Supreme Court, on May 12, 2011, threw out the curative petition filed by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) seeking enhanced punishment for top officials of Union Carbide, the multinational at whose Bhopal plant an accident led to a massive leak of poisonous gas that killed over 4,000 people instantly and disabled many thousands more.

The deadly leak occurred on December 4, 1984. Compensation for the victims, negotiated by the Government of India, was paltry by any standards and has been hotly contested for more than 25 years by groups fighting for the victims. In a 1996 judgment, the Supreme Court diluted charges against the accused from Section 304 (II) of the Indian Penal Code (culpable homicide not amounting to murder) to Section 304 (A) (criminal negligence). In 2010, a Bhopal court convicted seven accused who were sentenced to two years in jail. All seven secured bail immediately. The then Union Carbide Chairman Warren Anderson, also accused in the case, was declared a fugitive in 1992.   

The sessions court verdict and sentence was criticised strongly by civil society and the media, and a group of ministers was set up to look more closely into the matter. The GoM recommended stricter punishment for the seven officials. The CBI filed a curative petition against the light punishment and sought direction from the SC for framing of charges against the accused for culpable homicide not amounting to murder that carries a maximum imprisonment of 10 years (curative petitions have only been allowed since 2002). 

A five-judge bench including Chief Justice of India S H Kapadia dismissed the CBI’s petition saying it was based on a “wrong and fallacious plea”, and filed after 14 years. It said there was not enough reason to build a case of culpable homicide. “The materials produced do not meet the requirement (for homicide),” Kapadia said.

However, the court said that its 1996 judgment in no way prevented the trial court from framing charges under the stringent provisions of the Indian Penal Code. 

It said the Bhopal sessions court was free to examine the charges against the accused and decide, if the evidence available so warranted, that they could be tried for a more serious offence such as culpable homicide not amounting to murder. The SC bench clarified that the 1996 judgment was based on evidence presented before it at that time, and it was wrong to assume that it was binding on the trial court when additional facts and material were forthcoming.

On May 13, a day after the SC judgment, the Indian government said it would ask the CBI to move the sessions court in Bhopal for an early hearing of its revision application and appeal filed by the Madhya Pradesh government for stricter punishment for the accused. 


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