Image: Bhopal gas tragedy survivors outside trial
Sanjeev Gupta  /  EPA
A Bhopal survivor who fainted Monday outside the court following the verdict is assisted.
msnbc.com news services
updated 6/7/2010 3:25:14 PM ET 2010-06-07T19:25:14

A court Monday convicted seven former senior employees of Union Carbide's Indian subsidiary of "death by negligence" for their roles in the 1984 leak of toxic gas that killed an estimated 15,000 people in the world's worst industrial disaster.

Survivors of the Bhopal accident, some of whom gathered in this central Indian city chanting slogans, said the light sentences — two years in prison — are too little, too late given the scale of the damage. In India's notoriously slow justice system, the appeal process could drag on for years, even decades, while those convicted remain free on bail.

On the morning of Dec. 3, 1984, a pesticide plant run by Union Carbide leaked about 40 tons of deadly methyl isocyanate gas into the air of Bhopal, quickly killing about 4,000 people. Lingering effects of the poison raised the death toll to about 15,000 over the next few years, according to government estimates.

In all, at least 500,000 people were affected, the Indian government says. More than 25 years later, activists say thousands of children are born with brain damage, missing palates and twisted limbs because of their parents' exposure to the gas or water contaminated by it.

The Union Carbide subsidiary's former employees, all Indian nationals and many in their 70s, were sentenced to two years in prison and ordered to pay fines of 100,000 rupees ($2,175) apiece. All were released on bail shortly after the verdict.

The rulings appear set for appeals — the bail requests would be a first step in the appeal process — putting the case back into a notoriously slow and ineffective judicial system.

India's court system is badly burdened by corruption, incompetence and a lack of resources, making it easy to stall a case for many years. On Monday, even top Indian judicial officials acknowledged the system was in trouble.

"It's most unfortunate that it has taken that much of time to give the verdict," Law Minister Veerappa Moily told reporters after the ruling. "We need to address that."

'Travesty,' activist says
Rachna Dhingra, a longtime activist with the Bhopal Group for Information and Action, a rights group that works with survivors, blasted Monday's ruling as "a travesty of justice."

"But this is not new or unexpected," Dhingra said. "Every one of these men is free on bail and will go home to their families tonight. For survivors and families of victims there is nothing to go home to. They lost their families."

The subsidiary, Union Carbide India Ltd., was convicted of the same charge as the individuals and ordered to pay a fine of rupees 500,000 ($10,870). Union Carbide eventually sold its shares in the subsidiary company, which was renamed Eveready Industries India.

While the judge did not explain his negligence ruling against the seven, India's Central Bureau of Investigation, the country's top investigative agency, has said the plant was not following proper safety procedures before the disaster.

On Monday, Union Carbide in a statement on its website said the company and its officials were not subject to the jurisdiction of the Indian court since they did not have any involvement in the operation of the plant, which was owned and operated by UCIL.

Union Carbide was bought by Dow Chemical Co. in 2001. Dow says the legal case was resolved in 1989 when Union Carbide settled with the Indian government for $470 million, and that all responsibility for the factory now rests with the government of the state of Madhya Pradesh, which now owns the site.

Initially 12 defendants
The Central Bureau of Investigation had originally accused 12 defendants: eight senior Indian company officials; Warren Anderson, the head of Union Carbide Corp. at the time of the gas leak; the company itself and two subsidiary companies.

The 12 had initially been charged with culpable homicide, but in 1996 India's Supreme Court reduced the charges to death by negligence, which carries a sentence of two years in prison.

Image: Bhopal defendant
Afp  /  AFP - Getty Images
Keshub Mahindra, former chairman of Union Carbide India Limited, leaves the courthouse in Bhopal on Monday. He was among those sentenced.
Seven of the eight Indian company officials were convicted Monday. The other one has since died. Anderson and Union Carbide did not appear in the court proceedings.

Anderson was briefly detained immediately after the disaster, but he quickly left the country and now lives in New York.

Last July, the same court in Bhopal had issued a warrant for Anderson's arrest and also ordered the Indian government to press Washington for the American's extradition. It was not immediately clear if the Indian government had begun to process the Bhopal court's request.

Investigators say the accident occurred when water entered a sealed tank containing the highly reactive gas, causing pressure in the tank to rise too high.

Union Carbide Corp. said the accident was an act of sabotage by a disgruntled employee who was never identified. It has denied the disaster was the result of lax safety standards or faulty plant design, as claimed by some activists.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

Photos: Bhopal, 25 years later

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  1. A guard stands in front of the Union Carbide chemical plant on Dec. 3, 1984, in Bhopal, India. The plant leaked poisonous methyl isocyanate gas into the air, killing thousands of people instantly. Thousands more are said to have since died or been injured as a result of the toxic cloud, although the exact death toll remains unclear.

    Some 25 years after the world's deadliest industrial disaster, the drinking water supply for several communities in the area remains contaminated, according to a report by an advocacy group and a medical clinic. (Pablo Bartholomew / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

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    A dead child is partially buried Dec. 3, 1984, in Bhopal - one of at least 3,000 people killed immediately by the chemical leak. (Pablo Bartholomew / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. A woman grieves for her lost loved one on the day of the disaster. (Pablo Bartholomew / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. A man holds a sick child Dec. 3, 1984, in Bhopal. (Pablo Bartholomew / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. A man carries the body of a victim of the Bhopal tragedy on Dec. 4, 1984. (Bedi / AFP/Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Blinded victims sit in the street and wait to be treated in Bhopal on Dec. 4, 1984. Indian officials have anounced plans to reopen the site of the diaster to the public to coincide with the 25th anniversary. (Bedi / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Bodies of victims are seen Dec. 5, 1984, in Bhopal. (Sandro Tucci / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Mother Teresa comforts a young victim of the Bhopal tragedy on Dec. 11, 1984. (Pablo Bartholomew / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Children play near the boundary wall of the Union Carbide plant on Nov. 28, 2009. (Harish Tyagi / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Children play in front of the defunct Union Carbide factory on Nov. 18, 2009. (Raveendran / AFP/Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Discarded bottles of chemicals lay on the floor in a building at the site of the former Union Carbide factory on Nov. 28, 2009. (Daniel Berehulak / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Children gather greenery for their goat ahead of the Muslim holiday Eid al-Adha, in front of the shuttered Union Carbide factory on Nov. 27, 2009. (Daniel Berehulak / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Children play cricket on a foggy morning Nov. 18, 2009, inside the compound of the Union Carbide plant. (Raveendran / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. In this Nov. 20, 2009, photo, a physiotherapist holds the leg of a 7-year-old child at a clinic run by a nongovernmental organization to cater to victims of the Bhopal tragedy. A quarter century after the disaster, many of those who were exposed to the chemicals have given birth to physically and mentally disabled children. (Saurabh Das / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Khushi Verma, right, and Apeksha Malviya are given physiotherapy on Nov. 20, 2009, at a nongovernmental organization in Bhopal. (Saurabh Das / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Eleven-year-old Salu Raikwar, who was born with six fingers on both hands, holds a ball made from waste paper and a plastic bag in a slum area next to the closed Union Carbide pesticide plant in Bhopal on Nov. 30, 2009. (Reinhard Krause / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Women fill containers with clean water shipped in to replace the contaminated local water supply in Bhopal, on Nov. 28, 2009. (Daniel Berehulak / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. A January 2007 close-up of the eyes of a man who lives in the settlement located next to the former Union Carbide plant in Bhopal. Many people in the area suffer serious eye and lung problems. (Andy Spyra / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Fifteen-year-old Sachin Kumar crawls after playing a game of cricket with his friends in a slum near the site of the deserted Union Carbide factory on Nov. 27, 2009. (Daniel Berehulak / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Activists and victims of the Bhopal gas disaster participate in a torch procession toward the abandoned Union Carbide factory on Dec. 2, 2009, the eve of 25th anniversary of the disaster. (Altaf Qadri / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Activists and victims shout slogans during the torch rally to mark the 25th anniversary of the Bhopal disaster. (Reinhard Krause / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Survivors and mourners gather around a memorial statue of a mother and child erected outside the old Union Carbide factory in Bhopal on Dec. 2, 2009 in memory of poison gas victims who perished in the world's worst industrial accident 25 years ago. (Indranil Mukherjee / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Victims and activists surround a burning effigy of Warren Anderson, former CEO of Union Carbide, during a protest march to mark the 25th anniversary of the Bhopal gas disaster in Bhopal, India, on Dec. 3, 2009. (Altaf Qadri / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Hundreds of people marched through Bhopal to mark the 25th anniversary of the world's worst industrial disaster on Dec. 3, 2009 and demand the cleanup of toxic chemicals they say still contaminate the Indian city's soil and water. (Altaf Qadri / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  1. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  2. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

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  3. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

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  4. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

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