, BHOPAL, Jun 7 – An Indian court on Monday sentenced senior executives of the company blamed for the 1984 Bhopal gas leak disaster to two years in prison, a source in the court told AFP.
"Each of the guilty has been given a fine of 100,000 rupees (2,100 dollars) and two years of imprisonment," the official, who declined to be named, said.
A fine was also imposed on Union Carbide, which is now owned by Dow Chemical.
The court found eight people guilty over the gas leak disaster, including the then-head of the company blamed for poisoning tens of thousands of people.
A lethal plume of gas escaped from a storage tank at the US-run Union Carbide pesticide factory in the early hours of December 3, 1984, killing thousands instantly in the world\’s worst industrial catastrophe.
Among those found guilty of criminal negligence was the chairman of the Indian unit of US group Union Carbide, Keshub Mahindra, a leading industrialist who is now chairman of car and truck group Mahindra & Mahindra.
Those convicted in the local state court, including the managing director, the production manager and the plant supervisor, were to be sentenced at a later date.
Warren Anderson, the American then-chairman of Union Carbide, was among the accused but he was not named in the verdicts after the Bhopal court declared him an "absconder".
The company executives were originally charged with culpable homicide but – to the outrage of survivors and victims – the Supreme Court in 1996 reduced the charges to death by negligence with maximum imprisonment of just two years.
"Even with the guilty judgement, what does two years\’ punishment mean?" Sadhna Karnik, of the Bhopal Gas Victims Struggle group, told AFP.
"They will be able to appeal against the judgment in higher courts," he said.
Government figures put the death toll at 3,500 within the first three days but independent data by the state-run Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) puts the figure at between 8,000 and 10,000 in the same period.
The ICMR has said that until 1994, 25,000 people also died from the consequences of gas exposure, with victim groups saying many were still suffering from the effects to this day.
Government statistics compiled after 1994 concluded that at least 100,000 people living near the factory in central Madhya Pradesh state were chronically sick, with more than 30,000 residing in areas with contaminated water.
Dow Chemical bought Union Carbide in 1999 but says all liabilities related to the accident were cleared in a 470-million-dollar out-of-court settlement with the Indian government in 1989.
A statement released to coincide with the 25th anniversary of the disaster said the settlement "resolved all existing and future claims" against the company.
Union Carbide "did all it could to help the victims and their families" until the settlement and said the Indian government should be responsible for providing clean drinking water and health services to residents, it said.
The company said at the time and continues to insist that sabotage was behind the leak, but the victims have long fought for it to provide further compensation and for its senior staff to face justice.
"Warren Anderson has absconded but the Indian government must put pressure on the US to extradite him," said N. D. Jaiprakash, a leading victims\’ campaigner.
Another victims\’ group member, Satyanath Sarangi, described the maximum two-year sentence as comparable to the punishment for a "traffic accident."
"We will continue our fight," he said. "This is just the beginning."
A study last year by the Britain-based Bhopal Medical Appeal said the shanty towns surrounding the site were still laced with lethal chemicals that are polluting groundwater and soil, causing birth defects and a range of chronic illnesses.
The state government of Madhya Pradesh, of which Bhopal is the capital, has only partially cleared the area of hundreds of tonnes of toxic material.
Thousands more tonnes lie just yards from the plant in man-made "solar evaporation ponds" where Union Carbide was dumping waste for years before the accident.
State authorities say the material is not harmful and, to prove this, said they planned to open the site to visitors. Officials later reversed that decision.
Most of the settlement money was used to pay compensation of 1,000-2,000 dollars to victims who were left unable to work or with long-term ailments, but many received nothing.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh issued a statement marking the 25th anniversary describing Bhopal as a tragedy that "still gnaws at our collective conscience" and vowed continued efforts to tackle the issues of drinking water and site decontamination.