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India high court to reconsider Bhopal convictions

The Indian Supreme Court [official website] announced [text, PDF] Tuesday that it will reconsider a 1996 ruling allowing former employees of US chemical producer Union Carbide [corporate website] accused in relation to the 1984 Bhopal chemical spill disaster [BBC backgrounder] to be charged with negligence instead of culpable homicide. Seven men were convicted [JURIST report] in June on charges of "death by negligence" and sentenced to two years in prison and ordered to pay USD $2,100. The convictions were the first related to the Bhopal disaster in which nearly 3,800 people were killed when toxic gas was accidentally released in the middle of the night by a chemical plant owned by a Union Carbide subsidiary company. Upwards of 15,000 others later died from exposure to the gas, and 50,000 were left permanently disabled. The sentences of the men have been criticized as being too lenient [Financial Times report] and the Indian government has faced increasing pressure to bring charges against former executives of Union Carbide. If the convictions were to be overturned and the men were to be tried on charges of culpable homicide, they could face sentences of up to 10 years in prison.

Last month, the Indian government apologized for improperly dumping waste [JURIST report] related to the Bhopal incident. The apology came one month after cabinet ministers announced the government would consider increasing compensation for victims of the disaster [JURIST report] and seek the extradition of the former chairman of Union Carbide so he could stand trial in India. A settlement was reached between Union Carbide and the Indian government in 1989 with the company paying $470 million to end its liability. The cabinet members, however, indicated the government was willing to revisit the settlement and possibly seek further compensation from Union Carbide. Dow Chemicals [corporate website], which purchased Union Carbide in 1999, contends that the settlement ended all possible claims against the company.

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