Allegations that the oil multinational Shell aided and abetted the torture
and murder of Nigerian activists including the executed writer Ken
Saro-Wiwa will be tested by a full jury trial in New York, after the oil
company's attempts to have the case thrown out were rejected.
Shell will also stand accused of orchestrating a series of raids by the
Nigerian military on villages in the Ogoni region that left more than 1,000
people dead and 20,000 homeless.
Saro-Wiwa and eight others were arrested in 1994 after a fatal attack on
former leaders of their Movement for the Survival of Ogoni People (Mosop).
In a case that shocked the world, and was widely reported to be a legal
farce, they were found guilty of the murders by military tribunal and
executed in November 1995.
Now the case of the "Ogoni Nine", as they became known, has come back to
haunt the Dutch and British owners of Shell Nigeria.
The lawsuit was lodged by the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York
on behalf of three Nigerian emigrs to the US, including Saro-Wiwa's brother
Dr Owens Wiwa, and a woman identified as "Jane Doe" to protect her safety.
Their claims could run to tens of millions of pounds in damages against the
oil company. "We believe Shell facilitated Saro-Wiwa's execution," said
Jenny Green, of the Center for Constitutional Rights, after the judgment.
"We believe there is a basis in US law to hold Shell accountable."
Dr Owens Wiwa and the other plaintiffs claim to have suffered abuse or be
related to victims of a state terror campaign against Ogonis who fought oil
exploration in Nigeria's Rivers State. They specifically allege that Shell
Lent boats to Nigerian troops in September 1993 which were used to attack
Ogoni villages. On the days of the attacks, ahelicopter chartered by Shell
reconnoitred three villages where military operations led to the massacre of
more than 1,000 villagers.
Made cash payments to military police who shot a 74-year-old man and two
youths in the presence of Shell employees.
Specifically requested the assistance of Nigeria's notorious "kill-and-go" mobile police force to quell protests. In late 1990 these police carried out
massive "scorched earth" operations, culminating in the massacre of 80
villagers and the destruction of hundreds of homes.
Called in government troops to fire on Biara villagers who were peacefully protesting at the destruction of their homes to build the Rumuekpe-Bomu oil pipeline.
Participated in the fabrication of murder charges and the bribery of
witnesses to give false testimony against Saro-Wiwa, the youth leader John
Kpuinen and other protest leaders, who were repeatedly detained and tortured
by the government and later convicted of murder and hanged.
Coercively appropriated land for oil development without adequate
compensation, and proceeded to seriously pollute air and water in Ogoniland.
They also contend they and family members were imprisoned, tortured and
killed by the Nigerian government at the instigation of the oil company, in
reprisal for their opposition to oil exploration, and were not afforded the
legal protection required by international law.
"Jane Doe" claims to have been beaten and shot by the Nigerian military in a
raid on her village. A further contention is that Saro-Wiwa's family
including his 74-year-old mother -- were beaten by Nigerian officials while
attending his trial.
Shell was "disappointed" that its appeal had been rejected and said it was
"still considering" in detail what its response would be if the case were to
come to trial.
For years the Ogoni people, who live in the small but highly populated and
formerly fertile Rivers State in Nigeria, waged an activists' war against a
dictatorial state and multinational oil companies they accused of destroying
Shell Nigeria first began its operations in 1958, when Nigeria was still a
British colony. The country has vast oil reserves and oil accounts for some
90 per cent of export earnings and 80 per cent of state revenue.
The Ogonis, a minority ethnic group with little political clout, had no say
then (or after independence in 1960) over oil activities that spawned more
than 100 wells and, it is estimated, more than 3,000 oil spills.
The Ogonis' campaign began in the early 1990s as a peaceful protest movement
but became a dirty struggle, literally and figuratively, that saw an
increasingly militant Mosop which protested against poverty and
environmental damage, and demanded autonomy for the Ogoni with a share in
oil revenues violently repressed by the dictatorial Nigerian military
government. Oil producers saw Mosop as bad for business, while the
government saw it as a secessionist and political threat and focused on
Ogoni leaders for repression.
The lawsuit was originally filed in a Manhattan federal court in 1996 under
laws that allow action in the US against firms accused of human rights
abuses anywhere in the world. It alleges rights violations involving the
Dutch-owned Royal Dutch Petroleum Co and its sister company, Shell Transport
and Trading Company Plc, based in Britain.
They jointly control the multinational Royal Dutch-Shell Group, a network of
affiliated but independent oil and gas firms, one of which is Shell
Petroleum Development Co of Nigeria (Shell Nigeria) the country's biggest
Royal Dutch, which wants the case heard in England, said that the Nigerians'
allegations were "false and unsubstantiated". The ruling, it added, "is
about where the case should be brought, if it is brought at all, and not
about the merits of the allegations". The US Circuit Court of Appeals,
however, considered the case sufficiently valid to overrule a 1998 lower
court judge, who dismissed it on jurisdictional grounds. That dismissal
itself overruled an earlier court finding that jurisdiction did exist. The
appeals court judge Pierre Leval said the lower court "failed to give
weight" to three factors that favoured US jurisdiction for the trial.
First, some of the plaintiffs now live in the US and chose the forum.
Second, the lower court had ignored interests of the US in providing a forum
for human rights claims. And finally, "the factors that led the district
court to dismiss in favour of a British forum were not compelling".
Judge Leval also said that "new formulations" of the Torture Victims'
Protection Act of 1991 "convey the message" that torture committed under the
law of a foreign nation in violation of international law are also
violations of US domestic law. The district court, he also argued, failed to
consider financial hardship the plaintiffs would suffer if the case was
moved to Britain, and sent it back to district court for further argument.
Environmental groups such as Earthlife Africa accused oil companies of
causing serious damage without consulting the Ogonis, and there were
allegations that oil companies were behind the terror campaign. But the
world largely ignored the events that led up to the execution of the Ogonis
and Saro-Wiwa, whom Amnesty declared a prisoner of conscience.
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