New Delhi, May 11 : In an apparent setback to the campaign for those seeking stringent punishment for the accused in the Bhopal gas disaster, the Supreme Court today dismissed CBI's curative petition against an earlier apex court judgement that diluted charges against the accused.
A five-judge constitutional bench, headed by Chief Justice S H Kapadia, however, left a window of opportunity open saying the pending proceedings before the Sessions court against the Chief Judicial Magistrate's judgement awarding two years sentence to the accused, including Union Carbide India Chairman Keshub Mahindra will not be influenced by any order passed by it.
The bench said that the CBI and the MP government have failed to come out with a satisfactory explanation on filing the curative petition after a lapse of 14 years.
The unanimous order was passed by the bench that included justices Altamas Kabir, R V Raveendran, B Sudershan Reddy and Aftab Alam.
The CBI and the Madhya Pradesh government filed the curative petitions after a public outcry over what was considered as a mild punishment for a tragedy that claimed over 15,000 lives in December 1984 and had left several thousands maimed by the leakage of deadly Methyl Isocyanate gas.
In 1996, a two-judge bench of the apex court, headed by the then Chief Justice A H Ahmadi had diluted the charges against the accused from Section 304 Part II of the IPC providing for a maximum of ten years imprisonment to Section 304(A) that deals with rash and negligence act with a maximum punishment of two years.
The CBI and the MP government have filed revision petitions in the Sessions court against the judgement of the CJM, Bhopal, which had awarded two years jail term to various accused in the Bhopal gas tragedy case.
The CBI had sought recall of the apex court's 14-year-old judgement that had diluted the charges against the accused, who were prosecuted just for the offence of being negligent.
In its plea, the CBI had sought restoration of stringent charge of culpable homicide not amounting to murder instead of death caused due to negligence against the accused in the world's worst industrial disaster.
Madhya Pradesh government had also moved the apex court, endorsing the CBI plea for review of the September 1996 judgement by which the accused persons were tried for the offence of criminal negligence which resulted in a lighter punishment of two years' jail term to Mahindra and six others on June 7, 2010.
The others who escaped with lighter punishment included UCIL erstwhile Managing Director Vijay Gokhale, its Vice President Kishore Kamdar, Works Manager J N Mukund, Production Manager S P Choudhary, Plant Superintendent K V Shetty and Production Assistant S I Quereshi.
The apex court had on August 31 last decided to re-examine its own judgement that led to lighter punishment of two years imprisonment for all the seven convicts.
The verdict had sparked a nationwide outrage following which the government set up a group of ministers and filed a curative petition against the lighter punishment for those responsible for the gas tragedy.
Social activists fighting for enhanced punishment to the accused in the Bhopal gas disaster today expressed dismay over the Supreme Court's order and called it “another black day”.
“Supreme Court today has heaped yet more injustice on victims who have already suffered it earlier—in 1989 on settlement (for compensation) and in 1996 after dilution of penal charges against the accused. May 11 is another black day in the history of Bhopal,” social activist Satinath Sarangi told reporters.
Sarangi alleged that the state organs, including judiciary, were not keen on justice to Bhopal gas victims. “Why should people suffer because the CBI has not done its job well? The government machinery is not inclined to give justice to victims and this includes judiciary. It (court) could have seen that 1996 judgement equated the corporate massacre with a meagre traffic accident.”
“The message you are sending out to world is that you can come here, kill us and go back,” he added. Additional Solicitor General Indira Jai Singh, however, saw a silver lining in the apex court's verdict and said, “The judgement very categorically says that Sessions Court in revision case pending, can go ahead and frame charges under section 304-II (culpable homicide not amounting to murder or the unintentional killing) on the basis of the new evidence that has surfaced now. In that sense, it is positive.”
“The court has opened a door for prosecution of accused under charges of culpable homicide not amounting to murder (304-II of IPC).... It is now up to the sessions court to decide and frame charges,” she said. She said that “two years punishment (awarded by trial court earlier) is not enough”.
Sarangi, however, expressed dismay and anguish that the 1996 judgement was not set aside. He said, “Last year when trial court heaped this injustice, the whole country had voiced its outrage. Now the Supreme Court has put its stamp of approval on it. This is disgusting. I am disappointed. We have no other way than to go back to the people and for the victims to speak and express their outrage again.”
Saranagi pointed out that “the court could have seen that the concept of curative petition came in 2002 only and more evidence from the US federal court surfaced only six months beck. New evidence makes things clearer.” Activist Madhumita Das also lamented that “people have to suffer for mistakes committed by the governments”.
“I am shocked. After so many years there was hope for Bhopal victims. For the mistakes of the government and the CBI, the victims have to suffer again,” she rued. “The Supreme Court could have taken a more pragmatic view. It is the second time that Supreme Court has failed them (victims),” she said.
Another activist Rachna Dhingra said, “At the end of the day, the victims have to pay for CBI's unwillingness and incompetence. As the next step we will seek to have day-to-day hearing of the case in the Sessions Court and seek trial on graver charges in light of the new evidence.” PTI