Bhopal gas verdict slammed, demand for stricter law

MUMBAI Tue Jun 8, 2010 5:13pm IST

A victim of the Bhopal gas disaster attends a demonstration outside a court in Bhopal June 7, 2010. Activists demanded reforms of justice system and stricter laws for industrial disasters after a court took nearly 26 years to hand down a verdict for the world's worst industrial accident. REUTERS/Raj Patidar

A victim of the Bhopal gas disaster attends a demonstration outside a court in Bhopal June 7, 2010. Activists demanded reforms of justice system and stricter laws for industrial disasters after a court took nearly 26 years to hand down a verdict for the world's worst industrial accident.

Credit: Reuters/Raj Patidar

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MUMBAI (Reuters) - Activists demanded reforms of justice system and stricter laws for industrial disasters after a court took nearly 26 years to hand down a verdict for the world's worst industrial accident in Bhopal.

Thousands of people were killed in Bhopal after a plant of U.S. chemical firm Union Carbide accidentally released toxic gases into the air, and many more continue to suffer.

On Monday, a court convicted seven Indian former employees of Union Carbide of "causing death by negligence" and sentenced them to two years in jail.

It also imposed a fine of $2,100 on each of the seven former employees and convicted the former Indian arm of Union Carbide also of negligence and imposed a $10,600 fine.

It was too little, too late, said Audrey Gaughran, a director with campaign group Amnesty International.

"These are historic convictions ... but 25 years is an unacceptable length of time for the survivors of the disaster and families of the dead to have waited for a criminal trial to reach a conclusion," Gaughran said.

"Justice delayed, denied" said the Times of India daily on Tuesday.

The government says around 3,500 people died in the accident, but activists say 25,000 died in the immediate aftermath and the years that followed. The company and its chairman at the time, Warren Anderson, have refused to face trial.

The verdict was so long in coming because the case was shunted between courts in India where the backlog of cases runs to hundreds of thousands.

The Supreme Court in 1996 had modified the charges against the Indian accused -- from culpable homicide not amounting to murder, which is punishable by up to 10 years in prison -- on grounds that culpability lay with Union Carbide Corp.

RARE ADMISSION

In a rare admission of the failings of the legal system, Law Minister Veerappa Moily on Monday said the case highlighted the need to revisit the law pertaining to industrial disasters and for fast-track courts to deal with such cases.

"There is certainly a need to make changes. I am not satisfied with the law we have now," he told reporters.

That held out some hope for survivors and families of victims, said advocate Sadhna Pathak in Bhopal.

"The law minister has expressed his dissatisfaction, and that makes us hopeful there will be an appeal against the verdict. It is up to the government to bring more serious charges," she said.

The case, which invited intense scrutiny by local and international media and activists, will hopefully be a deterrent to corporations seeking to skirt India's inadequate industrial safety rules and pressure the governnment to act more decisively, said Rashida Bee, a campaigner for Bhopal survivors.

Certainly, the shadow of the Bhopal disaster and the verdict loom large over a stalled bill in the Indian parliament that would limit the responsibility of foreign firms entering India's lucrative civilian nuclear market.

The main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party has asked the government not to rush to clear the nuclear liability bill, which it says does not do enough for victims in case of an accident.

Since the leak, Gaughran said, its impact has not been properly investigated, the site has not been cleaned up, more than 100,000 people still suffer from health problems without medical care, and survivors are awaiting fair compensation and full redress.

(Editing by Krittivas Mukherjee and Sanjeev Miglani)

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