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Spare a little prayer for the forgotten victims of bhopal chemical disaster

The New Straits Times, September 8, 2002

By Dzulkifli Abdul Razak

During the next few days, the world will focus on the first anniversary of the Sept 11 horror, and rightly so. Thousands of lives have been loss in the world’s worst disaster in recent times.

After almost a year declaring war on terror, and claiming many hundreds more of innocent lives, the most wanted suspect – Osama bin Laden - is still elusive.

No one knows for sure if  Osama is still alive. And while the rhetoric continues, of late, our attention is directed to another wanted fugitive who has remained elusive for the last 18 years.

He was serving in Bhopal, as chief of a chemical plant when a deadly disaster broke out in 1984. Compared to Sept 11, the Bhopal incident is no less tragic and merits the same international attention.

In fact, the disaster is of worst proportion, at least in terms of numbers killed and maimed. What with the environmental and criminal liabilities involved, the solution to the Bhopal tragedy is indeed an urgent matter. More so because it is a case of justice denied, for almost two decades.

Yet not until a couple of weeks ago, the silence is deafening. The media interest has long died down, and there has been scant reference made to it. There is even a allegation of a cover up  (http://www.bhopal.net/gasfacts.html).

Worst still, the culprit is known to be residing in the US ever since he left Bhopal. A few days following the disaster, on Dec. 7, he was in fact arrested on charges of culpable homicide, criminal conspiracy and other serious offences.

Reportedly, lodged in the posh guest house of Union Carbide – the company responsible for the terror - he was released on the very same day on a bail.

Afterwards he left India. Little or no attempt has been made to ensure that he is brought to justice despite the long-standing demands from the victims of Bhopal and many international supporters for justice.

What is interesting is that summons from the Bhopal court drew no response from him. In early 1992 proclamations were published in The Washington Post directing the Union Carbide CEO to face trial in the Bhopal court.

By March 1992, the Chief Judicial Magistrate issued a non-bailable arrest warrant while he continues to elude from criminal justice (http://www.bhopal.net/gasfacts.html).

It was only with the helped of a UK newspaper that he was tracked down lately.

So it looks like things are finally set to change soon. Late last month, a court in Bhopal has asked for extradition proceedings to be started to bring the former head of Union Carbide to court. He faces charges which carry a maximum sentence of 20 years.

Unlike the Sept 11 most wanted suspect, the Bhopal culprit is not holed up any where. On the contrary, he is every bit a free person who allegedly spends the summer in a RM 3 million holiday home at the Hamptons on Long Island, New York and the winter in Miami, Florida, together with his wife.

They live in a four-bedroom, four- bathroom house, and he is a local tennis club member paying about RM 9,000 a year, according to the UK-based Daily Mirror recently.

Indeed, when he was served with a copy of a warrant for his arrest by an environmental campaigner, a member of Greenpeace USA, “the former chief executive officer of Union Carbide had returned from his country club.”

Earlier an attempt to reduce the charges to just negligence – as though to add insult to injury - was made by India’s Central Bureau of Investigation.

Fortunately, the attempt was nullified by the Indian court, suggesting that he “has been declared an absconder and against whom a permanent arrest warrant has been issued”, but yet to appear in court.

Meanwhile, the death toll continues to rise which far exceeds the number of people presumably dead on Sept 11. Perhaps ten times more, with “no end to the physical and mental suffering caused by exposure to the poisonous gases”, according to a source.

Some even allege that the medical conditions may not only go unrecognised, but as time goes by, “untreated or mistreated” (http://indiatogether.org/campaigns/bhopal/).

So as we mourn for the victims of  Sept 11 and demand for justice, do not forget the terror that ravaged Bhopal and its inhabitants. Instead, spare a little prayer for them as well so that justice will be served as a matter of priority.

As stated by US Greenpeace's Casey Harrell who personally visited the luxury house of the Bhopal fugitive: "Our government has been swift to react to the financial crimes of Enron and WorldCom. Union Carbide is charged with the deaths of thousands of Indians; shouldn't this be a priority?"

In short, the tragedy in Bhopal must not be viewed any differently from those in the US. The Sept 11 experience must remind us of Bhopal, whose victims has suffered far too long.

The world’s most matured democracy must enjoin the same justice that it seeks, by allowing the extradition to take place as soon as possible. The fugitive responsible for the murder must be held accountable regardless of race, creed or nationality.

Recommended website: http://www.greenpeaceusa.org/features/anderson_foundtext.htm


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