New Delhi: The Supreme Court on Wednesday dismissed the CBI's curative petition saying it was based on a "wrong and fallacious plea" and filed after a lapse of 14 years. However, the Apex Court left it open to the Sessions Court there to consider restoring stringent charges against the accused, who had got punishment under lighter provisions.

"In our view, on the basis of the material on record, it is wrong to assume that the 1996 judgement is a fetter against  proper exercise of powers by a court of competent jurisdiction under the relevant provisions of the Code", a five-judge constitution bench headed by Chief Justice S H Kapadia said.

The court said the 1996 verdict was not "binding" on the trial court which failed to appreciate the correct legal provision for trying the accused under the stringent provision in the tragedy that killed over 15,000 people and left maimed several thousands due to the leakage of deadly methyl isocyanate (MIC) gas in December, 1984.

In its nine-page judgement, which has come under attack from campaigners for sterner punishment to the accused, the bench said curative petitions of CBI and Madhya Pradesh
Government were not only based on the "wrong and fallacious" plea but were filed after a lapse of 14 years without satisfactory explanation.

"No satisfactory explanation is given to file such curative petitions after about 14 years from 1996 judgement of the Supreme Court," the bench, also comprising Justices Altamas Kabir, R V Raveendran, B Sudershan Reddy and Aftab Alam said.

The June 7 verdict of the Chief Judicial Magistrate, Bhopal, awarding two years' imprisonment to the accused including the then Chairman of the Union Carbide India Keshub Mahindra had sparked a nationwide outrage following which the government  decided to file a curative petition against the lighter punishment for those responsible for the gas tragedy.

The Apex Court on Wednesday said both CBI and the Madhya Pradesh government had adopted a correct legal premise in approaching the Sessions Court with the criminal revision
petition for restoration of stringent charge of culpable homicide not amounting to murder under Section 304 (part II) of the IPC which attracts maximum punishment of 10 years jail term.

The bench noted that the 1996 judgement diluting the charges to section 304 A for negligence was based on the evidence presented before it at that relevant time and it was
wrong to assume that it was binding on the trial court when additional facts and material were forthcoming. 

Besides Mahindra, the others who got lighter punishment included UCIL erstwhile Managing Director Vijay Gokhale, its Vice President Kishore Kamdar, Works Manager J N Mukund, Production Manager S P Choudhary, Plant Superintendent K V Shetty and Production Assistant S I Quereshi.

The bench held that the assumption of CBI was "wrong" and "without any basis" that as long as the 1996 judgement stands "the Sessions Court would feel helpless in framing any
higher charges against the accused" and did not have power to prosecute the accused for an offence higher than the one under Section 304A of IPC.

"It stems from a complete misapprehension in regard to the binding nature of the 1996 judgement. No decision by any court, this court not excluded, can be read in a manner as to nullify the express provisions of an Act or the Code and the 1996 judgement never intended to do so.

The Apex Court said, "In the 1996 judgement, this court was at pains to make it absolutely clear that its findings were based on materials gathered in investigation and brought before the court till that stage."

The court made it clear that if the Magistrate's Court failed to appreciate the correct legal provision for trying the accused under the stringent provision, it can be corrected by the Sessions court before which the revision petitions have been filed by the CBI and Madhya Pradesh Government.

"If according to the curative petitioner, the learned Magistrate failed to appreciate the correct legal position and misread the decision of September 13,1996 as tying his hands
from exercising the power under Section 323 or under Section 216 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, it can certainly be corrected by the appellate/revisional court," the bench said.

"It is clear to us that in the criminal revisions filed by the CBI and the state of Madhya Pradesh the legal position is correctly stated. But the curative petitions are based on a plea that is wrong and fallacious," it said.

"In fact, the revision petitions though belatedly filed by Madhya Pradesh and the CBI which are still pending) have asserted this position in the grounds of revision," the bench noted.

While dismissing the curative petitions, the bench said, "Nothing stated above shall be construed as expression of any view or opinion on the merits of the matters pending before the Sessions Judge, Bhopal."

In 1996, a two-judge bench of the Apex Court, headed by the then Chief Justice A H Ahmadi had diluted the charges against the accused from Section 304 Part II of the IPC providing for a maximum of ten years imprisonment to Section 304(A) that deals with rash and negligence act with a maximum punishment of two years.