Enter justice, in alligator boots and a polka-dot tie

Trevor Fishlock, writing in The Times, 11 December 1984


Enter Mr Melvin Belli. Into the horrors of Bhopal. the mass death and torment of thousands, oozes the extraordinary figure of one of America's leading lawyers, a courtroom whale proclaiming in his rough-cut way that he is here to bring justice and money to those poor little bastards who have suffered at the hands of those sons of bitches.

"This is an easy one," he says. "We'll knock the stuffing out of them. There is no doubt that we will win for Union Carbide have absolute liability. The only outstanding questions are the amount of the damages – we're going for $15 billion (£12.1 billion) – and the place of the trial."

"We will try to get the case heard in California. I know my juries there and I like my judges. And it is my home and I like to see my two Italian greyhounds. They sleep with me."

Mr Belli arrived here yesterday, on his way to stricken Bhopal, breakfasted handsomely and held court for reporters. He cut a singular figure, a bulky white-haired man in a black suit with a red silk lining, his feet encased in black alligator skin boots, a white polka-dot tie lying across his aldermanic paunch.

Considering the circumstances, that he was on his way to a devastated community, numbed and mourning after the greatest of industrial disasters, there was something grotesque about his American law court showbizzery and intemperate languge, his appearance as some sort of Deus ex machina.

"I had an idea I was going to get a piece of this case the morning I went to the office," he announced. "Any disaster anywhere in the world, someone will call us." Getting to the heart of the matter, he said "I want to get this case tried in the United States and get these Indian people American damages for the abuse of an American process."

He said his San Francisco law firm has represented many famous people in its time and reeled off the names of film stars to make the point. "But these people in India are nobodies. Some poor little bastard living in a railroad shack goes home to find his wife and child dead. Now Union Carbide have the effrontery to offer a fucking orphanage and a million dollars. It is a monumental goof."

"It is typical of the American philosophy. You can hear them saying, 'We gave a million dollars for an orphanage. Man, we got out of that one easily.' Well it won't wash."

It was a rather curious spectacle to see this almost stage-American figure begin to expound on the "Ugly American".

But there is no doubt that the "Ugly American", in the shape of the multinational company, is one of the elements in the anger that this disaster has generated in India. Here, in a single terrible incident, gas killing sleeping children and their parents, there seems to be the prime example of the multinational from the West exploiting the poor of the third world.

Mr Belli sounded rather like the editorialists of the Soviet press who have characterised the Bhopal tragedy as an example of the way the poorer countries are treated by capitalists.

"The American businessman," he said, "is a pretty cruel, unethical customer. He is a the son of a bitch. He is concerned only with profit."

Mr Belli went outside to be photographed, saw an evidently poor woman and gave her a 20 rupee note – worth about £1.60. He told her it was a Christmas present and that she could buy cigars.

He went about his business accompanied by a lawyer from Florida who wore a baseball cap inscribed with the word "Justice".

An American legal team is already in Bhopal. Mr Belli and his colleagues plan to go there today, and another team including Jay Gould, who successfully defended John de Lorean was expected to arrive in India later today.

One of the lawyers already in Bhopal was reported as saying that Mr Belli "uses people".

When I conveyed this to Mr Belli he said loftily, "When you get to 77 and have two Italian greyhounds and have read as many books as I have, and have as many friends among lawyers and judges, and had as many cases as I have, you don't have to spend time justifying yourself."