BANGALORE, India - Nearly 26 years after toxic gas killed thousands of residents in Bhopal, India, a court on Monday found seven former executives of U.S. chemical giant Union Carbide's Indian subsidiary guilty of negligence and sentenced them to two years in jail.
The case represented the first criminal convictions in one of the world's worst industrial disasters. Victims and activists were quick to declare the sentences inadequate.
"Victims here believe that rather than a deterrent, this judgment is actually an encouragement for companies to work in a dangerous fashion," said Satinath Sarangi, a metallurgist and founder of the Bhopal Group for Information and Action. "They know that they will get away with mass murder."
In the early hours of Dec. 3, 1984, a pesticide factory owned by Union Carbide in the central Indian city of Bhopal released approximately 40 metric tons of deadly methyl isocyanate gas.
The poison spread on the wind, exposing about half a million people, many of whom woke up coughing, blinded and vomiting. The Indian government said the disaster killed 3,500 people, while activists put the number as high as 25,000.
Thousands have lived with cancer, blindness, respiratory problems, mental retardation, and immune, neurological, and reproductive disorders.
Particularly galling for many was the lack of mention in the Indian court's verdict of then-Union Carbide chief executive Warren Anderson, now 89, an American who jumped bail and fled India after the disaster.
The seven who were convicted, all Indian nationals, were released on $530 bail each and are expected to appeal. Each defendant was also fined $2,100. An eighth person named in the conviction has since died.
Union Carbide India was fined $10,600. But it's not clear the fine will ever be paid: Michigan-based Dow Chemical Co. acquired Union Carbide, the parent company, in 2001 and has denied any inherited responsibility for the incident or its aftermath.
A report released late last year by Bhopal Medical Appeal, an advocacy group, said groundwater it tested months earlier, in June, contained 2,400 times the recommended safe levels of carbon tetrachloride, a carcinogen banned from U.S. products in the 1970s.
Indian courts, with 30 million cases pending, are notoriously creaky, and it's not unusual for a decision to take decades.
Local TV networks voiced outrage at the verdict. "Black Monday again," said one.
Victims protesting in front of the courthouse lashed out at the courts, politicians and government for allegedly failing to hold the U.S. company accountable.
"They are puppets in the hands of the U.S.," one victim told local reporters.
Among those convicted was Keshub Mahindra, then chairman of Union Carbide India and now chairman of Mahindra and Mahindra Group, one of India's largest corporations.
Over the years, Bhopal has become shorthand for corporate irresponsibility.
Union Carbide agreed in 1989 to a $470 million out-of-court settlement with the Indian government that absolved it of further liability. Many victims and survivors got about $500. Tens of thousands of people, unable to navigate the complex registration process, received nothing, critics said.