CBI today admitted in the Supreme Court that it made a “mistake” in approaching it late for restoring stringent charges in Bhopal gas tragedy case against the accused who escaped with lighter punishment for negligence that led to the world’s worst industrial disaster killing more than 15000 people.
The agency, which has sought restoration of charges of culpable homicide not amounting to murder which attracts maximum 10 years jail term, said it was not an “ordinary case” in which delay in filing the curative petition will come in the way of providing justice to the victims of the disaster.
“This is not an ordinary case as so many people lost their lives. Justice cannot be denied just on the ground of delay. We made a mistake,” Attorney General G E Vahanwati told a five-judge special bench headed by Chief Justice S H Kapadia.
“I don’t know why it was not filed by CBI but a review petition was filed in the case by someone else and it was dismissed,” he said as the bench questioned CBI for delay in approaching it after 15-16 years.
The bench was hearing a petition filed by CBI seeking to recall the apex court’s 1996 judgement that had diluted the charges against the accused who were prosecuted just for the offence of being negligent.
The Attorney General was also asked “why CBI had not filed the review petition”.
He said the review petition filed by an NGO was dismissed and it was also a “mistake” that CBI also did not opt for it.
He said the delay in the filing of the curative petition was because the trial was on in the case and the concept of curative petition evolved only in 2002.
CBI’s curative petition faced opposition from the accused persons who questioned its maintainability when the agency itself has moved the sessions court against the verdict of the trial court and even the appeals filed by the convicts are pending.
Senior advocate Harish Salve, appearing for the then Union Carbide India Chairman Keshub Mahindra, who has been sentenced to two years jail term, said he will not argue on maintainability of the petition if the apex court gives a clarification that the sessions court in Bhopal will deal with the issue, vis-a-vis the charges which have to be applied on the accused.
He said the apex court can clarify that without being influenced by the merits of its 1996 judgement, the sessions court could address whether section 304 A (negligence) or 304 (II) (culpable homicide not amounting to murder) will be applicable.
Senior advocate Ram Jethmalani, appearing for 81-year professor Ramaswamy R Iyer, said it was a delaying tactic on the part of CBI which had opposed in 2008 when a similar application was filed before a magistrate’s court for holding trial under stringent charges when new facts had emerged.
He said even if the apex court restores stringent charges, the re-trial will take again a number of years and many of the accused who are old will die.
“It is impossible to reframe charges and send the matter back for trial which will take another 20 years and by that time all the accused would be dead,” he said.
However, the Attorney General went ahead with the arguments to justify the need for filing curative petition and said there were a series of illegal ommissions and commissions on the part of the accused from 1982 onward which led to that disaster and many new “incriminating” facts came to light after the incident.
But the apex court 1996 verdict did not allow framing the stringent charges for the offence of culpabale
homicide not amounting to murder which attracts maximum punishment of ten years of jail term.
“I can show series of illegal ommissions and commissions from 1982 onwards that give an impression that the disaster was bound to happen,” he said.
He said there was a serious security fault besides a fault in the design in the plant which led to the disaster.
“The court misunderstood the incident. It also misunderstood what was the case,” he said adding it was a rarest of rare case in which a large number of people suffered due to the incident.
“It is a crime,” he said about the tragedy which could have been avoided had the management of the Union Carbide acted with caution.
The petition filed by CBI sought restoration of the stringent charge of culpable homicide not amounting to murder instead of death caused due to negligence against the accused.
The apex court had on August 31 last decided to re-examine its own judgement that led to lighter punishment of two years imprisonment for all the seven accused. The court had issued notices to all of them on CBI’s plea for restoration of the stringent charge of culpable homicide.
Besides Mahindra, Vijay Gokhale, the then Managing Director of UCIL, Kishore Kamdar, then Vice President, J N Mukund, then Works Manager, S P Choudhary, then Production Manager, K V Shetty, then Plant Superintendent and S I Quereshi, then Production Assistant were convicted and sentenced to two years’ jail term by a trial court in Bhopal on June 7 last year.
The curative petition in the criminal case was filed after the trial court judgement in the 26-year-old case had triggered a national outrage, following which the Centre appointed a group of ministers (GoM) to recommend steps including ways to get the punishment enhanced. Asian Age