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Outrage in India over Bhopal disaster verdicts

delhi Updated: Jun 08, 2010 13:45 IST

AFP
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Indian newspapers vented outrage on Tuesday at two-year prison terms handed down to the local managers of the company blamed for the catastrophic 1984 Bhopal disaster.

Most focused on the 25-year delay in the convictions, the perceived leniency of the sentences and the feeling that the "big fish" -- the chief executive of the US parent group Union Carbide -- had got away.

Seven Indian managers from the factory that caused the disaster were found guilty in a court in Bhopal on Monday and given two-year prison sentences.

They were all granted bail and will now begin what promises to be a lengthy appeal process.

"Shame On India" headlined the tabloid Mail Today, while the front page of The Times of India read: "Justice Delayed, Denied."

The Express, The Times and NDTV news channel focused on the "man who got away" -- Union Carbide's then-chief executive, Warren Anderson, who fled India after the disaster and was named as an absconder by the court.

The ageing former executive lives in suburban New York.

Amnesty International's global issues director, Audrey Gaughran, said "the Indian employees have now been tried and convicted, (but) the foreign accused have been able to evade justice simply by remaining abroad".

The prosecution argued in the Bhopal court that there were design defects in the factory as well as other criminally negligent operational practices that were known to management but ignored for commercial reasons.

Dow Chemical bought Union Carbide in 1999 and says all liabilities related to the accident were cleared in a 470-million-dollar settlement reached out of court with India's government in 1989.

In a statement on Monday, the group said the appropriate people had faced trial, arguing that US executives were not involved in the day-to-day running of the majority-owned Union Carbide India Ltd.

The two-year sentences were the maximum that could be imposed after the Supreme Court in 1996 reduced the charges from culpable homicide to negligence.

"We hope that this verdict today helps to bring some closure to the victims and their families," Robert Blake, the US assistant secretary of state for South Asia, told reporters in Washington.

"But I don't expect this verdict to reopen any new inquiries or anything like that."

The disaster happened on December 3, 1984 when a lethal plume of gas escaped from a storage tank at the Union Carbide pesticide factory, killing thousands in the surrounding slums and residential area.

Government figures put the death toll at 3,500 within three days of the leak, but independent data from the state-run Indian Council of Medical Research puts the figure at between 8,000 and 10,000 in the same period.

The ICMR has said that up to 1994, 25,000 people also died from the consequences of gas exposure, and victims groups say many still suffer the effects.

After the verdicts, others saw repercussions for controversial legislation that the ruling Congress-led government is trying to pass to limit the liabilities of US nuclear firms operating in India.

The Civil Liability for Nuclear Damage Bill would put a 110-million-dollar cap on compensation that reactor operators would have to pay and exempt equipment suppliers in the event of an accident.

The measure is key to putting into operation a 2008 civilian nuclear agreement with the United States that will give India access to US nuclear technology.

"There is a need to take note of the lessons learnt (from the Bhopal case) while looking at (issues such as) investigation, liability, compensation and punishment," Law Minister M Veerappa Moily said, The Hindu newspaper reported.