Monday, June 7, 2010

Bhopal disaster--convictions...26 years later

"Indian Court Convicts 7 in Bhopal Disaster"


Hari Kumar

June 7th, 2010

The New York Times

An Indian court convicted seven people on Monday of death by negligence in the 1984 Bhopal gas disaster, in which thousands of people were killed by toxic chemicals from a pesticide plant owned by Union Carbide.

The defendants were all senior officials of Union Carbide at the time of the leak, India’s deadliest industrial disaster. They were convicted of “causing death by negligence,” a crime that carries a maximum sentence of two years, according to Indian news reports. An eighth defendant who died before the verdict was also convicted.

The verdict was immediately criticized by victims’ groups and activists, who had sought more serious charges. Death by negligence is most frequently used in fatalities involving car accidents, they said.

“The world’s worst industrial disaster reduced to a traffic accident,” said Sati Nath Sarangi, an activist fighting for the rights of victims.

The accident took place at Union Carbide’s chemical plant in Bhopal on December 3, 1984. A poisonous gas called methyl isocyanate leaked in the plant and spread over nearby slums. About 3,000 people were killed immediately. Thousands more suffered from the aftereffects of exposure.

Initially the defendants were charged with culpable homicide, which carries a longer sentence, but during court battles lasting more than two decades, India’s Supreme Court reduced the charges.

Those convicted included Warren M. Anderson, who was chairman of Union Carbide at the time of the accident. Mr. Anderson came to India after the disaster and was briefly arrested before being released on bail. The authorities were unable to bring him back to India for the trial.

Keshub Mahindra, an Indian industrialist, who was then chairman of Union Carbide India, was also convicted, along with other Indian officials at the plant.

Activists and gas victims swarmed to the courtroom to hear the judgment. Most of them protested the lighter charges for convicts.

Hameeda Bi, whose granddaughter died 20 days after the gas leak, said in a telephone interview: “The convicts should be given life sentence. They killed thousands of people and we fought for justice for 25 years,”

About 2,000 more deaths were directly attributed to the gas leak, and government records indicate that 578,000 people were affected. Union Carbide, which was later bought by Dow Chemical, paid $470 million to settle victims’ claims.

The accident site in the middle of Bhopal was given back to the state government. Union Carbide was absorbed by Dow in 2001, and victims’ groups are are trying to to get Dow to clean up the site.

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