The Supreme Court on Wednesday dismissed a Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) petition seeking more stringent punishment for then United Carbide India Ltd (UCIL) chairman Keshub Mahindra and six others in the Bhopal gas tragedy case.
The apex court, by its 1996 verdict, had diluted the charges against the accused from Section 304 (A) of the Indian Penal Code -- culpable homicide not amounting to murder, to that of Section 304 (II) -- criminal negligence.
The investigative agency had moved the apex court, seeking a direction of the framing of charges against Mahindra and others for culpable homicide not amounting to murder that amounts a maximum imprisonment of 10 years.
Under criminal negligence, the maximum punishment is just two years.
Delivering the judgment for the constitution bench, Chief Justice SH Kapadia said that after the 1996 verdict, the accused could not be tried under the stringent provisions of law without any basis.
The court said the 1996 judgment in no way shackled the trial court from framing the charges under the stringent provisions of the criminal procedure court.
The judgment cleared the way for the trial court to frame charges against the seven accused under Section 304 (II) as the evidence available so warranted.
The accused were convicted by a Bhopal court last year under the less stringent provisions of causing death due to negligence.
The Union Carbide disaster, in which poisonous methyl isocyanate (MIC) gas leaked from the plant on the night of Dec 2-3, 1984, killed 3,000 people instantly and 25,000 over the years.
It also affected 100,000 people and estimates are that more than 500,000 continue to suffer from ill effects of the gas.
Wednesday's ruling was a huge setback to the victims of the world's worst industrial disaster, said Bhopal activists.
The CBI moved the apex court after a trial court in Bhopal convicted Mahindra and others under section 304 (A) and awarded them imprisonment of two years.
All the seven accused -- Mahindra, then UCIL managing director Vijay Gokhale, vice president Kishore Kamdar, works manager JN Mukund, production manager SP Choudhary, plant superintendent KV Shetty and production assistant SI Quereshi -- walked away after getting bail.