New Delhi: The Supreme Court turned down Wednesday a government demand to hand harsher sentences to seven men convicted for their role in the 1984 Bhopal gas tragedy.
The accident, blamed on Union Carbide, a US chemical group that ran the plant, killed thousands instantly and tens of thousands more from its lingering effects over the following years.
A government suit had called for the seven company executives convicted last year of negligence to be tried on a more serious charge of “culpable homicide not amounting to murder” which carries a jail term of 10 years.
The men were sentenced to two years in prison by a state court, causing outrage and anger among survivors in Bhopal.
The executives were granted bail after their convictions.
“The curative petition is based on a plea that is wrong and fallacious,” a five-judge bench in the apex court said, adding that “no satisfactory explanation” had been given for filing the review after so long.
The charges of negligence were framed in 1996 after an order from the Supreme Court which had also ruled out culpable homicide.
Survivor groups reacted with dismay at the setback on Wednesday.
“The verdict comes as a shock for all the victims. We expected the court to review the case, understand our problems and deliver justice but sadly this has not happened,” said Balkrishna Namdeo, an activist of the Bhopal Gas Victims’ Association in Bhopal.
“Every victim of the Bhopal gas leak is upset and angry today and we will express our anger across India,” he told the news agency.
The government figures put the death toll from the accident at 3,500 within three days of the leak, but the state-run Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) has since estimated the figure at between 8,000 and 10,000 in the same period.
The ICMR has said that by 1994 some 25,000 people had died from the consequences of gas exposure, and victims groups say many are still suffering the effects today.
Following a public outcry over the convictions last year and pressure in the media, the current government announced a host of measures to help survivors more than 25 years after the disaster.
These included new funds for a clean-up of the still-contaminated site, a new attempt to extradite the American former chairman of Union Carbide, Warren Anderson, and the attempt to increase the sentences against those found guilty.
Separately, the government filed another petition in the Supreme Court asking for higher compensation from the company, which was initially set at $470 million in a settlement reached in 1989.
Union Carbide sold its stake in the Bhopal plant after the accident and the group has since been acquired by chemicals giant Dow Chemical.
Dow insists that all of Union Carbide’s liabilities were settled in the 1989 agreement.