Seven Convicted in Deadly 1984 Bhopal Gas Leak in India

BY Larisa Epatko  June 7, 2010 at 4:31 PM EST

A court in India has convicted seven former executives of a Union Carbide subsidiary of “causing death by negligence” for a gas leak at a company plant that killed an estimated 15,000 people in the 1980s.

The seven men, some of whom are now in their 70s, were sentenced to two years in prison and fined 100,000 rupees, or about $2,175. They were released on bail shortly after the verdict. An eighth man who was charged has since died.

On Dec. 3, 1984, a cloud of poisonous gas, called methyl isocyanate, escaped from a pesticide plant run by Union Carbide in Bhopal, India, killing about 4,000 people. According to widely varying estimates, about 15,000 people eventually died due to the gas’ lingering effects, and about 500,000 people were affected overall.

Activists say thousands of children are born with brain damage, missing palates and damaged limbs because of their parents’ exposure to the gas or contaminated water, The Associated Press reported.

Union Carbide paid $470 million to settle with the victims, with each getting an average of $550, according to The New York Times.

Victims groups criticized Monday’s ruling as too light.

The charge of “causing death by negligence” carries with it a maximum prison term of two years and is used most often for hit-and-run traffic accidents, victims representatives said, The Wall Street Journal reported.

Victims advocate Sati Nath Sarangi called the verdict “the world’s worst industrial disaster reduced to a traffic accident,” quoted the Times.

The Indian government first filed claims against Union Carbide in 1985 in the United States, but the case was transferred to Indian courts a year later, where the charges were reduced from culpable homicide to criminal negligence, the Christian Science Monitor reported.

Indian authorities also tried to prosecute Warren Anderson, chairman of Union Carbide, who came to India after the leak and was briefly arrested, then released on bail.

His bail expired a year ago. He is now 89 and lives in New York, and is considered an absconder by Indian courts, reported the Times.