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Bhopal court upholds criminal charges against former Union Carbide CEO. (Environmental Intelligence).

On August 28, the Indian courts rejected a bid to reduce criminal charges against Warren Anderson, who was the CEO of Union Carbide in 1984 when the company's pesticide factory in Bhopal leaked 40 tons of chemicals that killed thousands in the worst industrial accident in history.

India's Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) revealed in 1987 that the gas disaster was the result of conscious decisions taken by Anderson to scale back safety and alarm systems at the Bhopal plant in order to cut costs. Based on these findings, the Court of the Chief Judicial Magistrate of Bhopal charged Anderson with "culpable homicide" (the legal equivalent of manslaughter) and issued a warrant for his arrest in 1992. Anderson has avoided extradition from the United States and has refused to appear in court.

In May 2002, the CBI petitioned to reduce the charges against Anderson from "culpable homicide" to "criminal negligence," saying that convictions against the CEO ought to be in line with the lesser charges filed against the Indian plant managers. The reduced sentence would have protected Anderson from extradition, and reduced his maximum sentence from 10 years to two. Survivors and their supporters were outraged by the CBI motion, saying that Anderson bears greater responsibility than the Indian management because all major decisions took place at the company's U.S. headquarters. Over 1,000 supporters began a worldwide hunger strike to protest the potential dilution of charges.

Many activists believe the Indian government asked for the reduced charges to avoid embarrassing Dow Chemical, which acquired Union Carbide in 2001. According to Nityanand Jayaraman, an Indian activist with the International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal, "India's capitulation to U.S. pressures is in response to U.S. warnings that the investment climate would be adversely affected if a U.S. corporate CEO were to be criminally prosecuted 18 years after the disaster."

At the August 28 hearing, Chief Judicial Magistrate Rameshwar Kothe rejected the CBI's petition, stating that charges against Indian plant managers had only been reduced after they appeared in court and filed an appeal. Anderson, however, has not personally appealed, and therefore, no basis exists for reducing the charges. The judge also demanded that immediate steps be taken to extradite Anderson.

Greenpeace, which tracked Anderson down to his million-dollar home in New York, has accused the U.S. government of dragging its feet. "Our government has been swift to react to the financial crimes of Enron and WorldCom," said Greenpeace campaigner Casey Harrell. "Anderson is charged with the deaths of thousands of Indians; shouldn't this be a priority?" Official figures report 2,500 deaths in the immediate aftermath of the leak and 8,000 after three days. The International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal estimates that about 20,000 people have died from the accident, and between 120,000 to 150,000 have suffered from chronic illnesses, including respiratory infections, gynecological disorders, cancers, and neurological damage.

Many victims feel Union Carbide's compensation settlement of $470 million is too small (in contrast, Exxon was fined $5 billion for the Valdez oil spill). About $272 million remains locked away in government coffers due to the Indian government's mismanaged victim compensation efforts. More than 40,000 claim forms are missing, and compensation has not been paid for mental health injuries.

In June, India's Finance Minister announced plans to use the remaining settlement money to clean up contaminated lands and to assist Bhopal residents in areas not affected by the leak. Survivors responded with a mass rally and an 18-day hunger strike in New Delhi. The government has since agreed to use the funds only for affected residents, but has left open the option of spending the compensation money on cleanup. "It's a ridiculous idea and contrary to the polluter-pays principle," says G. Krishnaveni, a U.S.-based activist with the International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal. Survivors have asked Dow to pay for cleanup and medical treatment, but Dow has stated that it takes no legal or moral responsibility for any aspect of the Bhopal tragedy.
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Author:Sarin, Radhika
Publication:World Watch
Geographic Code:9INDI
Date:Nov 1, 2002
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