No satisfactory explanation for filing petitions after 14 years of judgment

In a major setback to the Centre, the Supreme Court on Wednesday dismissed as “fallacious” the CBI's curative petitions for recalling its 1996 judgment, which dropped the charge of culpable homicide not amounting to murder against the former chairman of Union Carbide India, Keshub Mahindra, and other accused in the Bhopal gas leak case of 1984.

As the Supreme Court had reduced the charges against the accused from Section 304 (II) of the Indian Penal Code — culpable homicide not amounting to murder — to Section 304 (A) — criminal negligence, a trial court in Bhopal in June 2010 awarded them a maximum sentence of two year-imprisonment.

Following a public outcry, the Central Bureau of Investigation filed the curative petitions for a direction to frame charges against Mr. Mahindra and others for culpable homicide not amounting to murder that would attract a maximum imprisonment of 10 years.

The other accused who got the lesser sentence and were granted bail are the then UCIL managing director, Vijay Gokhale; the former vice-president, Kishore Kamdar; the former works manager, J.N. Mukund; the former production manager, S.P. Choudhary; the former plant superintendent, K.V. Shetty; and the former production assistant, S.I. Quereshi.

Now, rejecting the curative petitions, a five-judge Constitution Bench said: “No satisfactory explanation has been given to file such curative petitions after about 14 years from the 1996 judgment.”

The Bench of Chief Justice S.H. Kapadia and Justices Altamas Kabir, R.V. Raveendran, B. Sudershan Reddy and AfItab Alam, however, made it clear that the September 1996 judgment and order never fettered the CBI or the Madhya Pradesh government from seeking enhancement of charges.

Delivering the judgment for the Bench, Chief Justice Kapadia pointed out that the CBI/Madhya Pradesh government did not question the 1996 judgment or file any review petition and instead proceeded, in the next 14 years, to prosecute the accused under IPC Sections 304 A, 336 (act endangering life or personal safety of others) and 337 and 338 (causing hurt/grievous hurt) read with Section 35 (criminal knowledge or intention).

The CBI filed an appeal before the sessions court for enhancement of the charges and the State also filed a revision against the magistrate's order awarding a two-year sentence.

In these pending appeals “the legal position is correctly stated,” the CJI said. But the “curative petitions are based on a plea that is wrong and fallacious. One of the main planks of the curative petitions is that even though in the course of trial before the magistrate, additional evidence has come on record that fully warrants the framing of higher charges and the trial of the accused on those higher charges, as long as the 1996 judgment stands the sessions court would feel helpless in framing any higher charge.”

The Bench said that if, according to the CBI, the magistrate had failed to appreciate the correct legal position and misread the September 13, 1996 decision as tying his hands from exercising the power under Section 323 or 216 of the Cr.PC it could certainly be corrected by the appellate/revisional court.

On the night of December 2, 1984, there was a massive escape of lethal gas from the methyl isocyanate storage tank in Bhopal plant into the atmosphere, causing the death of 5,295 people and leaving 5,68,292 others with different kinds of injuries ranging from permanent total disablement to less serious problems. The accused, other than Warren Anderson (who was chairman and CEO of Union Carbide when the accident occurred), challenged in the Madhya Pradesh High Court the framing of charges by the sessions court. After their plea was dismissed, the Supreme Court in 1996 quashed the charge of culpable homicide not amounting to murder.

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