LOS ANGELES -- US oil giant Unocal must stand trial in California for alleged complicity in human rights abuses by Myanmar's military junta, including forced labor, rape and torture, a judge ruled.
"Prior to its involvement in the pipeline project, Unocal had specific knowledge that the use of forced labour was likely, and nevertheless chose to proceed," said Los Angeles Superior Court judge Victoria Chaney.
Protestors from the US and Myanmar hold giant effigies of UNOCAL CEO Roger Beach (L) and a gun-toting Myanmar general (R), outside the UNOCAL head office in Brea, USA (AFP/File)
In the decision seen here Thursday, Chaney rejected arguments by the California-based energy firm, which built a gas pipeline in Myanmar, that the case should be tried at least in part under Myanmar or Bermuda law.
Unocal had made a bid to have the long-running case shifted to the country formerly known as Burma as the alleged abuses took place there, or to Bermuda where a Unocal unit is registered.
But lawyers representing Myanmar villagers allegedly abused by the isolated Southeast Asian nation's military regime contested the move and the judge agreed it would be offensive to allow Myanmar law to be applied.
But the judge said foreign laws such as Myanmar's "indeterminate" laws could not be given precedence if they were morally offensive to public policy, while Bermuda law was not applicable as the Unocal units cannot conduct business within the Caribbean island although they are based there.
Chaney discounted allowing Myamar law to apply, because "even in the unlikely event that these statutes authorized the violent and oppressive behavior at issue in this case, this court would refrain from applying (them) for public policy reasons."
The judge's move cleared the way for plaintiffs in the case -- 14 unnamed Myanmar nationals represented by US lawyers -- to seek tougher penalties under California law.
The case centres on the construction of the much-disputed Yadana pipeline, built by Unocal and partners including France's Total to carry natural gas from Myanmar to neighbouring Thailand.
A lawyer for Unocal, which strongly rejects the allegations, said the firm was unhappy with the ruling and was considering whether to appeal it immediately or wait until after the trial, due to start September 22.
"We disagree with the judge's decision," said Los Angeles-based attorney Daniel Petrocelli, adding that the villagers were trying to strip Unocal's Bermuda units of their corporate status to target the parent firm.
"The principal company involved (...) was not even a Unocal subsidiary, even though the court referred to it as such," he said.
But Rick Herz, litigation director at the advocacy group Earthrights International in Washington and co-counsel for 11 of the plaintiffs, welcomed Chaney's ruling.
"This is great. We thought their (Unocal's) arguments that Burma law applies and that Bermuda law applies were ridiculous and she (Chaney) agreed with us," he said.
"This is a great victory for the villagers," said another attorney for them, Dan Stormer in Los Angeles.
"It prevents Unocal from playing a shell game with corporations. It is a great step towards obtaining justice for these ... villagers."
The villagers are suing Unocal for unspecified damages alleging that the firm benefited from use by Yangon's military regime of forced labour and its soldiers' use of murder and rape, even if it did not agree with the abuses.
In written complaints, they say they were pressed into service in the 1990s to clear a route and build facilities for the pipeline, widely described as the largest foreign-invested project in Myanmar.
The plaintiffs' identities have been concealed for fear of reprisals by Myanmar's junta.
Unocal executives have acknowledged that troops did force villagers to carry ammunition and supplies for the military and to perform other labor in the vicinity of the project, but deny that any of the labor was linked to the pipeline's construction.
Unocal owned the pipeline jointly with Total, formerly TotalFinaElf, and theThai and Myanmar governments. Total is being sued separately in Europe.
Copyright 2003 AFP