India's Supreme Court rejected an appeal Wednesday to reinstate stronger charges against seven people convicted of negligence in connection with the 1984 toxic gas leak in Bhopal that killed an estimated 15,000 people.
The leak at a Union Carbide plant, the world's worst industrial accident, left thousands more with devastating deformities and other health problems.
Survivors of the tragedy say their plight has been long ignored, and nearly three decades later justice has still not been served. In recent years, they have demanded harsher punishments for those responsible, called for the extradition of the former head of Union Carbide from the United States and pushed for far more generous compensation for the victims and their families.
The seven former officials of Union Carbide's Indian subsidiary were initially charged with culpable homicide, but a 1996 Supreme Court ruling reduced the charges.
Last year, they were convicted of death by negligence and given the maximum two years in prison, a relatively light sentence that caused a public outcry and prompted the government to appeal. The officials, all Indian nationals and many in their 70s, were released on bail shortly after the verdict.
In rejecting the prosecution's case Wednesday, the Supreme Court ruled that the government never gave a sufficient explanation for why it had waited 14 years to try to reinstate the stronger charges to gain longer sentences.
Activists were furious at the ruling.
"Once again the Bhopal gas tragedy victims are being denied justice," said Rachna Dhingra of the Bhopal Group for Information and Action, which works with the victims.
The pesticide plant was owned and operated by Union Carbide's Indian subsidiary at the time of the leak.
Union Carbide was bought by Dow Chemical Co. in 2001. Dow says the legal case was resolved in 1989 when Union Carbide settled with the Indian government for $470 million, and that all responsibility for the factory now rests with the government of the state of Madhya Pradesh, which now owns the site.
The Supreme Court is also hearing a government petition seeking an additional payment of $1.7 billion from Union Carbide in compensation for the gas leak victims.