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Indians outraged by Bhopal gas verdict prepare counterpunch

Activists vowed to appeal a court decision Monday that issued seemingly light sentences over the infamous 1984 Bhopal gas leak, which killed 15,000 people. Opposition politicians threatened to stymie a key nuclear deal with the US.

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Holding foreigners to account

Activists are also asking the Indian government to set up a special prosecution cell to help bring foreign accused to justice. American Warren Anderson, the former head of Union Carbide, the US parent company, was also accused in the case but was never extradited from the US to face the charges in India. An “absconder” in the eyes of the courts here, he is a particular point of anger for Indians, with his absence feeding the idea that foreign multinationals are not accountable for their actions in the country.

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Revisiting the nuclear bill

This anger also drives much of the opposition to the Civil Liability for Nuclear Damage Bill, which would set the protocols for India’s civil nuclear commerce.

“This is a wake up call for the people in this country,” says Rachna Dhingra of the Bhopal Group for Information and Action. “This is not just about Bhopal. Tomorrow, if there is a nuclear disaster, people will be treated worse because a US company cannot be held liable.”

The bill places liability wholly on the nuclear power plant operator, not any foreign suppliers or companies building the reactors, and caps that liability in case of a nuclear accident to about $100 million. Accident cases are limited to the jurisdiction of Indian courts. It was set to be introduced in parliament in March but deferred due to the opposition.

US State Department officials said Monday they hoped the verdict would not impact the bill’s passage. Indian Law Minister Veerapa Moily, however, told an Indian newspaper Monday evening that it probably would. The verdict suggests the laws on industrial disasters need to be strengthened, he said.

Opposition parties, including the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party and the leftist parties, have reiterated their opposition to the bill, with the latter saying that the compensation was too low and that the bill would safeguard corporate and US interests at the expense of India.

That's a view echoed by Abdul Jabbar, a victim of the disaster and organizer of a local rights group: "Government policy favors the multinationals, but we have to carry on fighting, and doing what we can to get justice."

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