Bhopal gas trial convicts eight in India, but disappoints activists

An Indian court convicted eight officials of Union Carbide India Ltd on Monday for the 1984 Bhopal gas leak that killed 15,000 people, in one of the world's worst industrial disasters. But activists say the sentence – up to two years in prison and $2,000 in fines – falls short of the crime.

REUTERS/Raj Patidar
Victims of the Bhopal gas disaster attend a demonstration outside a court in the central Indian city of Bhopal June 7, 2010. An Indian court on Monday sentenced eight people to two years each in prison for negligence in failing to prevent one of the world's worst industrial accidents that killed thousands of people in 1984.

Twenty-six years and countless court hearings after a gas leak from a Union Carbide plant in Bhopal in central India killed at least 15,000 and poisoned the area's soil and water, eight people were found guilty of criminal negligence by a local court here on Monday. One of the eight died prior to the verdict.

The verdict may feel like too little, too late for rights groups who have been campaigning for more than two decades to get justice for the victims of the 1984 tragedy. Activists have said the charges in what is widely held to be the world's worst industrial disaster have been diluted to what might be expected in "something like a traffic accident."

"After waiting so many years for justice ... it's a verdict to make us weep," says Syed M Irfan, convener of the Bhopal Gas Peedit Mahila Purush Sangharsh Morcha, a campaign group for victims of the gas leak in Bhopal. He criticized the Indian government's Criminal Bureau of Investigation for their conduct of the case.

"More than 15,000 people are killed and the punishment is just two years in prison. How could that be?" he says. The verdict sends a message to international companies that they could set up shop in India and get away with anything, he adds.

Activists will file an appeal in the Bhopal high court, says Mr. Irfan.

The convicted officials of Union Carbide India Ltd (UCIL), including then chairman Keshub Mahindra, were sentenced to two years' imprisonment and a fine of 100,000 rupees ($2,123). All applied for and received bail immediately, and may appeal the sentences.

Another accused, American Warren Anderson, the former head of Union Carbide Corp., the US parent company, was reportedly not mentioned in the court verdict. India has been trying to extradite Mr. Anderson for several years. The US rejected India's extradition request in 2004.

Lingering effects

The leakage of 40 tons of methyl isocyanate from the now-shuttered pesticide plant, located within Bhopal city limits, is estimated to have killed thousands in the weeks that followed. Campaigners say many more fell sick and died over the following years, bringing the death toll to as many as 25,000.

Despite Union Carbide's initial cleanup efforts, activists say the effects of the leak have persisted in the environment as well as in illnesses among new generations. A 2002 study by an environmental NGO found lead and mercury in the breast milk of nursing mothers in the nearby communities.

The Indian government first filed for claims against Union Carbide in the US in 1985. The case was transferred to Indian courts a year later, where the charges were reduced from culpable homicide to criminal negligence, a move widely criticized by rights groups.

The government reached an out-of-court settlement of $470 million with the company in 1989, a deal that was later challenged by various local groups in court.

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