America's Supreme Court cleared the way yesterday for the relatives of the executed Nigerian playwright Ken Saro-Wiwa to allege in court that the multinational oil giant Shell was complicit in his death.
The court announced that it will allow a civil action to proceed in New York, in which the relatives will claim Shell aided and abetted the writer's torture and death in Nigeria in 1995.
Saro-Wiwa and eight others were tried and hanged by Nigeria's former military regime after protesting about oil exploration in the southern Delta region, populated by the Ogoni people. The trial organised by the regime based on an allegation that Saro-Wiwa was responsible for a fatal attack on another group was widely seen as a legal farce.
Mr Saro-Wiwa and fellow activist John Kpuinen were repeatedly tortured and eventually hanged in 1995.
The suit alleges that Royal Dutch Petroleum Co and sister company Shell Transport and Trading Co fabricated evidence to support murder charges against the two men.
Since then, the case of the so-called Ogoni Nine has been a constant thorn in the side of the Dutch and British owners of Shell Nigeria, in the shape of a lawsuit lodged by three Nigerian émigrés to the United States, including Saro-Wiwa's brother Dr Owens Wiwa.
The Ogoni tribe welcomed the decision by the Supreme Court. "We stand a much better chance of getting justice outside Nigeria," said Deeka Menegbon, secretary general of the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People.
In an action that could cost the company millions of dollars in damages, the action alleges that Shell "facilitated Saro-Wiwa's execution". It specifically claims that Shell provided money and guns to the Nigerian government to help deal with protesters, recruit police and soldiers to attack villages in the Delta region and crush opposition to oil exploration and participated in the fabrication of murder charges against Saro-Wiwa.
Shell has tried for several years to have the action thrown out on the basis that a New York court had no right to hear the case and the plaintiffs had no right to sue, because the victims were not American.
A Federal judge dismissed the case in 1998 but it was later reinstated by the Second US Circuit Court of Appeals. Shell had asked the Supreme Court to rule against the appeal court. The company's lawyer wrote: "Under the ruling, virtually any multinational corporation with a listing on a US stock exchange, not to mention numerous foreign officials, will be at risk of having brought into court in New York to answer for acts having no connection to the US and not violating any Federal Law."
The Supreme Court made no comment in announcing its decision yesterday not to interfere with the previous ruling.
Shell Nigeria first began its operations in 1958, when the country was still a British colony. Nigeria has vast oil reserves and its economy is largely fuelled by oil: up to 90 per cent of its export earnings come from oil.
But the Delta region, in which much of the oil reserves are found, is also home to the Ogoni people an ethnic minority group with little political voice. The Ogonis' campaign against the 100 wells (and an estimated 3,000 oil spills) began in the early 1990s. It was initially peaceful but was violently repressed by the military regime, which harassed Ogoni leaders.
Environmental groups such as Earthlife Africa have accused oil companies of causing serious damage, without consulting the Ogoni about their activities.
The lawsuit by the relatives of Saro-Wiwa was originally filed in a New York court in 1996 under laws that allow action in America against firms accused of human rights abuses anywhere in the world.
© 2001 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd.