Bhopal disaster criminal court verdicts to be delivered
An Indian court is set to deliver a historic judgement on the Bhopal gas disaster, one of the worst modern industrial accidents.
Over 25 years after a leak from a chemical plant owned by Union Carbide Corporation, a US company, killed up to 25 000 people and harmed hundreds of thousands more in the central Indian city, the city judicial magistrate of Bhopal will on Monday decide whether a dozen senior managers and directors of the plant should go to jail. The verdict will be the first in a criminal prosecution connected to the tragedy.
Those in the dock are all Indian. The trial was split following the refusal of the then chairperson of Union Carbide, Warren Anderson, who is American, to return to India to face charges.
Those in the dock are now accused of causing death by criminal negligence and face a sentence of up to two years’ imprisonment if found guilty.
Original charges of culpable homicide, which carries a potential 10-year sentence, were controversially downgraded by the supreme court in 1996. Anderson remains charged with the more serious offence.
The trial has involved 178 witnesses and over 3 000 documents. The prosecution has sought to show that the accident was a result of the Bhopal plant’s defective design and poor maintenance. Groups representing the survivors of the disaster have criticised the prosecution case, brought by the state through India’s Central Bureau of Investigation, which they say has been poorly prepared.
The disaster was caused when late in the evening of 2 December 1984, safety systems failed, allowing methyl isocyanate, a key ingredient for pesticide, to mix with water at high temperatures. Poorly trained and ill-equipped local staff were unable to prevent the subsequent release of clouds of highly toxic gas. Worst hit were the densely-populated slum areas which had grown up around the plant since its construction in 1969.
‘Some kind of closure’
Groups representing the survivors of the tragedy say that those responsible should face more serious sanctions.
“Justice will be done in Bhopal only if the individuals and corporations responsible are punished in an exemplary manner,” said Rashida Bee, who lost six family members in the disaster. “Union Carbide’s disaster was foreseeable and foreseen and still allowed to happen.”
One defendant, Vijay Gokhale, who was managing director of the Indian subsidiary of Union Carbide Corporation at the time, told the local Sunday Mid Day newspaper that the accused were not “nervous” about the end of the trial. “We all hope there is some kind of closure,” he said.
The number of casualties caused by the disaster remains disputed. The Madhya Pradesh government has confirmed a total of 3 787 deaths. Campaigners say more than six times as many were killed and nearly 250 000 harmed. A 2004 Amnesty International report said about 100 000 people in Bhopal continue to suffer “chronic and debilitating illnesses”. Many have received little compensation. A deal struck by the Indian government with Union Carbide was based on an early estimate of victims that proved extremely low.
Defendants will be able to appeal the verdict. - guardian.co.uk