A lawsuit filed Tuesday in the New York District Court demands reparations from 20 banks and corporations that supplied critical support to the apartheid regime that ruled South Africa until 1994.
The case -- filed in the name of the Khulumani Support Group, engaged in counseling more than 32,000 South Africans hurt by apartheid -- seeks compensatory and punitive damages from a host of multinational corporations.
These include U.S. giants IBM, General Motors, Exxon Mobil, J.P Morgan Chase, Citigroup, Caltex Petroleum Corporation, Ford Motor Company, and the Fluor Corporation. All of these groups have been asked to provide generous compensation to help "heal the damage" caused by apartheid, according to the Apartheid Debt and Reparations Campaign, one of the groups behind the lawsuit.
"The corporations aided and abetted a crime against humanity whose persistent social damage requires urgent repair," charged Jubilee South Africa, another supporter.
The suit charges IBM and Fujitsu ICL with supplying technology for white South African authorities to create "passbooks" for the black population that were used to control their movement, employment, and residence.
The amount of damages being sought was not specified in the court document, but the damage could be "in the billions," according to Jubilee South Africa spokesman Neville Gabriel.
Contacted by phone Tuesday evening, an IBM spokeswoman said she had no details on the suit, but on the basis of news reports, IBM believed it "has no merit." According to media reports, other firms too are denying responsibility.
The suit charges financial institutions like Citicorp with culpability for lending funds used to bolster police and armed forces under the racist regime. It claims that arms manufacturers and oil companies violated internationally agreed embargoes on sales to South Africa.
The class-action suit filed by Washington-based firm, Cohen, Milstein, Hausfeld and Toll, is based on the Alien Tort Claims Act, which grants U.S. courts jurisdiction over certain violations of international law, no matter where they occur.
Lead counsel on the case, Michael D. Hausfeld, called South Africa's apartheid regime an "institutionalized system of racial disenfranchisement." He declared that the current suit "seeks a measure of justice from those entities which aided or abetted the commission of this atrocity."
"Apartheid could not have been maintained in the same manner without the participation of the defendants," the law firm said Tuesday in a statement explaining the case.
According to grisly accounts by plaintiffs and family members, extra-judicial killings, torture, and arbitrary detention -- recognized as violations of international law -- were regularly practiced by the apartheid regime between 1948 and 1993.
Teenagers in the marketplace were reportedly shot by soldiers, parents cold-bloodedly murdered by the police in their homes, while suspected black members of the apartheid resistance were brutally tortured in prison.
Apartheid ended in 1994 when former political prisoner, Nelson Mandela, was elected president. But, argues the Khulumani Support Group, the regime and its supporters have never been held accountable for their actions.
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