A local court on Monday sentenced eight former Union Carbide of India Ltd (UCIL) executives to two years’ imprisonment for the criminal negligence that led to the Bhopal gas disaster of December 1984.
The tragedy claimed more than 15,000 lives and affected the health of 500,000 when nearly 40 tonnes of a poisonous gas emitted from the now defunct Union Carbide factory on the night of December 2-3, 1984.
<b1>Two hours after the sentencing, the convicts were freed on bail on personal bonds of Rs. 25,000 each. The court also fined them Rs. 1 lakh each and UCIL Rs. 5 lakh.
There was tension on the court premises, where prohibitory orders were imposed, as Chief Judicial Magistrate Mohan M Tiwari announced the verdict.
The convicts include the top brass of UCIL in 1984: the then chairman Keshub Mahindra, Vijay Gokhle, SP Raichoudhary, Kishor Kamdar, J Mukund, KV Shetty and SI Qureshi. Another person convicted, RB Rai Choudhary, has passed on.
US-based Union Carbide on Monday said it was not subject to the jurisdiction of the Bhopal court and that none of its officials were involved in the operation of the plant. “Union Carbide and its officials were not part of this case since the charges were divided long ago into a separate case,” a company statement said.
"Furthermore, Union Carbide and its officials are not subject to the jurisdiction of Indian court since they did not have any involvement in the operation of the plant, which was owned and operated by UCIL,” the statement read.
The convicts have the option to move the sessions court and subsequently the higher courts against the verdict. Three other accused in the case — one and two corporate entities — were declared absconding: the then chairman of Union Carbide Corporation (worldwide) Warren Anderson, Union Carbide Corporation and Union Carbide (eastern) Hong Kong.
The case began in December 1987 after the CBI filed a chargesheet in court. Since then, 20 CJMs heard the case. There were 256 hearings in all.
The hearings were suspended briefly after the Supreme Court ratified an out-of-court settlement between Union Carbide Corporation and the Indian government in 1989. By the terms of the agreement, the company got immunity from all civil and criminal liabilities relating to the gas disaster.
Proceedings resumed in 1991 after the Supreme Court restored criminal charges against the company and its officials in response to a petition by two NGOs — Bhopal Gas Peedit Mahila Udyog Sangthan and Bhopal Gas Peedit Sagharsh Sahyog Samiti.
However, a Supreme Court Bench in 1996 diluted the charges against the accused from culpable homicide to criminal negligence.