Larry Bowoto's left arm is still scarred and numb where a soldier's bullet struck it in 1998 while he was aboard a Chevron oil platform in Nigeria. During the course of the incident, Bowoto was shot several more times, another man was wounded and yet another was killed.
On Monday, in only the second trial of its kind, a federal jury will convene in San Francisco to decide whether Bowoto and his companions were violent hostage takers or innocent victims - and whether a U.S. corporation, whose foreign subsidiary summoned the security forces, is responsible for the bloodshed.
"I'm not a violent person," Bowoto, 44, said through an interpreter during a recent Bay Area visit. "We were peaceful protesters" who "never expected Chevron to be so brutal."
Chevron denies claim
The San Ramon oil company paints a different picture: Bowoto, the company says, led a group of armed men who seized the platform, demanding jobs and money, and held 200 employees captive during three days of fruitless negotiations before Chevron's Nigerian subsidiary - Chevron Nigeria Ltd. - called for military help.
"This is a case of right versus wrong, legal versus illegal, peaceful negotiation versus violent extortion," Chevron said in a statement.
In May, after Bowoto appeared at Chevron's shareholders' meeting and said the company "must give up violence as a way of doing business," CEO David O'Reilly called his remarks "outrageous" and said Bowoto was guilty of "a criminal act."
Nineteen plaintiffs, including Bowoto, accuse Chevron of colluding with a notoriously violent military force to quell the protest. The case represents a 21st century application of one of the nation's oldest laws, the Alien Tort Claims Act.
Passed by the first Congress in 1789, the law lets foreigners file damage claims in U.S. courts for international human rights violations anywhere in the world. Originally focused on sea piracy, the law took on new life with rulings in the 1980s that allowed survivors of foreign torture to sue military leaders who entered the United States.
A 2004 Supreme Court ruling limited the law's scope to the most serious abuses of internationally accepted legal standards but left the door open for suits against multinational companies that allegedly collaborate with repressive governments.
In the only such case to go to trial, a federal jury in Alabama last year absolved the Drummond coal company of responsibility for the killings of three union leaders by paramilitary forces in Colombia. Judges have dismissed several other suits, under the Supreme Court's stringent standard, and a few have been settled.
Unocal settled Burma suit
A suit against Unocal by Burmese villagers, who blamed the company for forced labor, rape and torture by soldiers at a natural gas pipeline, was scheduled for trial in Los Angeles in 2005, but the company settled it for an undisclosed amount of money. A suit similar to Bowoto's, filed against Royal Dutch Shell by Nigerians including relatives of Ken Saro-Wiwa, a writer and activist hanged by the military regime in 1995, is scheduled to go to trial in New York in February.
"Courts have been vigilant in allowing only the most well-founded cases to go forward," said attorney Marco Simons of the nonprofit advocacy group EarthRights International, a lawyer for the plaintiffs. A victory in this case, he said, would send a message to corporations operating abroad that "if they are complicit in human rights abuses, they can expect to be held accountable."
Chevron, while maintaining the villagers' claims are unfounded, also says that the 1789 law "provides a financial incentive to attack U.S.-based corporations with international operations" and that the plaintiffs "are using the U.S. courts to intervene in Nigerian affairs."
The events date from May 1998, when members of the Ilaje tribe in the Niger Delta went to Chevron Nigeria's Parabe platform, 9 miles off the Atlantic coast, to protest the company's employment practices, and what they described as the destruction of fresh water, farm lands and fishing by oil drilling and dredging.
"It now takes four or five hours to find any usable water," Bowoto said in his recent interview with The Chronicle, describing the conditions that he said still exist. "It takes days to find any significant fish. The same thing has happened to farming."
Threat of 'mass riot'
Chevron, in court papers and public statements, described the protesters as a group of "armed youths" carrying machetes, knives and clubs and demanding jobs and money. The company cited letters from "Concerned Ilaje Citizens," including Bowoto, to Chevron earlier that month warning that refusal to allocate jobs fairly "could lead to mass riot" and asking, "Which language do you understand? Is it violence or sea piracy, war or peace?"
But plaintiffs' lawyers have a faxed message sent by a company official to the U.S. Embassy on the third day of the protest, describing the villagers as unarmed and saying the situation "has remained calm since their arrival."
Soldiers arrived the next morning on helicopters leased from Chevron. One villager, Arolika Irowarinum, was shot to death. Two men were wounded - Bowoto, who was shot several times, and Bassey Jeje. A fourth man, Bola Oyimbo, allegedly was beaten and tortured, and later died of unrelated causes.
Chevron says its subsidiary was simply reporting a crime when it contacted security forces and had no reason to anticipate violence. The plaintiffs counter that the company was well aware of the soldiers' violent reputation and approved the plan that led to the attack.
Those are factual disputes that a jury must resolve, U.S. District Judge Susan Illston said in a pretrial ruling. She said jurors also must decide whether Chevron's control over its subsidiary was so extensive that it should be held responsible for any wrongdoing.
The trial is scheduled to last five weeks.