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March 08, 2002
Shell to Stand Trial for 1990s Human Rights Abuses in Nigeria
    by William Baue

A U.S. Federal Court rejected Shell's plea to dismiss a case charging the company with human rights abuses in Nigeria dating back to 1995.

On February 28, the U.S. Federal Court in New York denied Shell's motion to dismiss a case in which plaintiffs accuse the global energy company of allegedly colluding with the Nigerian government in human rights abuses in the mid-1990s. Lawyers with Washington, DC-based EarthRights International and New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) represent the plaintiffs, the families of Nigerian writer and activist Ken Saro-Wiwa and youth leader John Kpuinen. These two men had actively protested against Shell (ticker: RD) for environmental devastation of Ogoni tribal lands in the Niger Delta.

In November 1995, a Nigerian tribunal found Mr. Saro-Wiwa, Mr. Kpuinen, and seven of their colleagues in the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP) guilty of the murder of four moderate Ogoni chiefs. Cor Herkstroter, then-chairman of Shell Petroleum Development Company of Nigeria Limited (SPDC), wrote a personal letter to the Nigerian head of state appealing for clemency on humanitarian grounds. Despite this plea, the tribunal hanged all of the so-called "Ogoni Nine."

"Shell is here on trial," said Mr. Saro-Wiwa in his last statement before his sentencing. "The Company has, indeed, ducked this particular trial, but its day will surely come."

U.S. Federal Court Judge Kimba Wood's decision to reject Shell's appeal for a dismissal was interpreted by the plaintiff's lawyers as a partial fulfillment of this prophecy.

"This ruling means that the families of Ken Saro-Wiwa and his Ogoni colleagues may yet get some measure of justice for the unlawful executions and other abuses in which Shell was complicit," said EarthRights International attorney Richard Herz. "More broadly, it sends a strong message to other multinational companies that they cannot participate in egregious human rights abuses with impunity."

The court is also hearing claims against Brian Anderson, the former managing director of SPDC, as well as claims by another plaintiff, who is remaining anonymous to protect her safety. She alleges that Nigerian troops called in by Shell beat and shot her while she peacefully protested the bulldozing of her crops in preparation for a Shell pipeline. Collectively, Shell and Anderson stand accused of crimes against humanity, torture, summary execution, arbitrary detention, and racketeering (for collusion with the Nigerian military.) These acts violate the Alien Tort Claims Act, the Torture Victim Protection Act, and the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act.

Shell's motion to dismiss the case hinged in part on its argument that the United States is not the proper venue for the trial. However, Judge Wood ruled that Shell engaged in these alleged acts in part to facilitate the export of cheap oil to the United States. Furthermore, Judge Wood found sufficient evidence of collusion between Shell and the Nigerian military to qualify as racketeering under the RICO Act. Judge Wood rejected these and Shell's other motions to dismiss the case.

"We are disappointed that this case will proceed, since it was a former Nigerian government, and not Shell, that committed the acts alleged in this claim," said Shell spokesperson Mike McGarry in a prepared statement. "But we are very confident that the evidence will show that Shell is simply not responsible for these tragic events."

A page on Shell's website, which maintains commendable transparency on this issue, defends its actions in more depth.

"[W]e have never provided any arms for soldiers in Nigeria, nor would we, and we have no connection with any military operations in Ogoni land," reads the website.

The trial moves next to the discovery phase, in which plaintiffs' lawyers are entitled to interview Mr. Anderson as well as other Shell employees to gather evidence for the trial.


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