New Delhi: The Supreme Court on Tuesday issued notices to all the accused in Bhopal gas leak case on a petition by the CBI seeking to restore against them the stringent charge of culpable homicide, which attracts a maximum punishment of 10 years’ jail term.
In in-chamber proceedings, a bench comprising Chief Justice S.H. Kapadia and justices Altamas Kabir and R.V. Raveendran sought response from the accused on the curative petition filed by the probe agency seeking recall of the apex court’s 14-year-old judgement that had diluted the offence.
The court listed the matter for hearing after the completion of the service.
The CBI has sought reconsideration of the 13 September 1996 apex court judgement which had whittled down the charge to ‘causing death due to rash and negligent act´ against former Union Carbide India chairman Keshub Mahindra and six others.
Besides Mahindra, Vijay Gokhale, the then managing director of UCIL, Kishore Kamdar, then vice president, J N Mukund, then works manager, S.P. Choudhary, then production manager K.V. Shetty, then plant superintendent and S.I. Quereshi, then production assistant were convicted and sentenced to two years’ jail term by a trial court in Bhopal on 7 June.
The trial court verdict had sparked an outrage with activists and political parties seeking an appeal against it, maintaining the accused had been tried under a less stringent provision of law for the tragedy that left over 15,000 people dead and thousands maimed.
All the accused were tried under section 304A of Indian Penal Code which attracts a maximum punishment of two years’ imprisonment for causing death by a rash and negligent act.
The charge under section 304 part-II was diluted to section 304A by a bench comprising the then chief justice A.M. Ahmadi and justice S.B. Majmudar.
The CBI, which described the case as one of the rarest of rare cases, said the apex court should invoke its inherent power in public interest to address and remedy errors apparent on the face of record in the judgement and order of 13 September 1996.
The apex court had on 10 March 1997 also dismissed the petition filed by an NGO, Bhopal Gas Peedith Sangharsh Sahayog Samiti, seeking a review of the 1996 judgement diluting the charge.
After the public outrage against the trial court verdict, the GoM (Group of Ministers) on Bhopal gas tragedy on 20 June recommended that CBI file the curative petition and also decided to fix criminal liability against former UCC CEO Warren Anderson and seek his extradition from the US.
In the curative petition, the CBI said the 1996 verdict suffered from serious errors as the charges under Section 304 Part II of IPC against the accused were quashed by the apex court without any consideration of the material placed by the prosecution at that stage.
“Besides, in the course of trial, categorical evidence has now come to light, which unequivocally points to the commission of offences under Section 304 Part II of the IPC by the respondents/accused persons,” the curative petition said.
“This curative petition is an attempt by the state to set right this gross miscarriage and perpetuation of irremediable injustice being suffered by the victims in particular, the society at large, and the nation as a whole,” CBI said.
The agency relied on the 1 August, 1995, judgement of the Madhya Pradesh high court and the final verdict delivered by the trial court on 7 June to buttress the point that the accused should have been prosecuted under the original charge of culpable homicide not amounting to murder.
The agency said there were sufficient material to indicate that the accused were having knowledge with regard to the consequence of their act.
It claimed the accused had knowledge about the inherent defects in the operation and maintenance of the plant and no action was taken to rectify them.
The agency has sought condonation of delay in filing the curative petition in public interest.
The CBI said that even the trial court had made the observation that there was utter disregard to the safety standards and safety procedures in the plant.