SC to review Bhopal gas tragedy verdict

No court has ever entertained a plea for reconsideration or review of its judgment after a lapse of 14 years. But the SC on Tuesday took the unprecedented decision and agreed to have a relook at its 1996 judgment, which diluted criminal charges against the accused from Section 304-II to Section 304A of Indian Penal Code. This resulted in the trial court on June 7 awarding them two years’ sentence for the industrial disaster in December 1984 that killed more than 10,000 people and maimed over one lakh. What followed was public outrage coupled with a cry for justice from victims immediately after the trial court verdict convicting the accused but sentencing them to a maximum yet light punishment of two years’ jail term under Section 304A.
Following the public outcry after the verdict, a three-judge bench comprising Chief Justice S H Kapadia and Justices Altamas Kabir and R V Raveendran, in a swift chamber hearing of the curative petition, decided to issue notices to all the accused — Keshub Mahindra, V P Gokhale, Kishore Kamdar, J Mukund, S P Chaudhary, K V Shetty, S I Qureshi and Union Carbide India Ltd — and sought their response to the CBI’s plea for fastening of Section 304-II charges against them. With the issuance of notices to the accused, the curative petition will now be heard in open court. If the CBI’s plea is allowed by the SC, then there will be a fresh trial under Section 304-II and if the prosecution succeeds in proving the charge, then the trial court could award a sentence up to 10 years’ imprisonment.
Drafted by advocate Devadatt Kamat and certified by attorney general G E Vahanvati as a fit case for reconsideration of the September 13, 1996 judgment rendered by a bench of then CJI A M Ahmadi and S B Majmudar, the CBI’s curative petition claimed that there was enough evidence on record to sustain Section 304-II charges. The agency accused all of them of deliberately ignoring mechanical faults in the
pipeline connecting the tanks which stored deadly methyl isocyanate that led to its leakage on December 2, 1984 resulting in the death of thousands and injury to over a lakh. “The perpetrators behind the leakage of MIC gas from the UCIL plant should not be allowed to walk away with a minimal punishment of two years under Section 304A in one of the world’s biggest industrial catastrophes, despite ample evidence to show the commission of an offence under Section 304-II of the IPC,” the CBI said.
Vahanvati had given a carefully worded certificate saying this petition needed to be entertained as it fell in the “rarest of rare” category where the apex court could correct a judgment that resulted from misreading of solid evidence presented by CBI showing culpability of the accused under Section 304-II. The CBI minced no words in describing the lack of logic in the 1996 judgment and justified the state action, though delayed, in taking corrective step. “It is an attempt by the government to set right gross miscarriage and perpetuation of irremediable injustice being suffered by the victims in particular, the society at large and the nation as a whole,” it said. The agency said though a certain amount of compensation and rehabilitation was done with the fund of $470 million provided by UCIL, it was not enough to get away with minimal punishment.

A curative petition is the last resort for a petitioner to point out mistake of law or fact considered by the Supreme Court in rendering a judgment and seek reconsideration. There is no time limit for filing a curative petition, though the court has specified that a plea for review has to be filed within 30 days of pronouncement of judgment. The option of curative petition was devised by the SC in Rupa Ashok Hurra case [2002 (4) SCC 388] reflecting its anxiety to do complete justice in a case given the fallibility of human beings, including judges. Finality of judgments is an important fact, but the intention to do justice prevails over the former, as was evident from the 2002 judgment.

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