A civil trial that will judge any involvement by oil giant Royal Dutch Shell in the executions of protesters in Nigeria will start this month in New York City, more than 13 years after their deaths.
Shell is accused of human rights abuses, including in connection with the 1995 hangings of prominent activist Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight other protesters by Nigeria's then-military government. Shell has denied allegations of involvement.
The protesters, who campaigned nonviolently for a fairer share of Nigeria's oil wealth for the poor and against environmental damage by the industry, had been convicted of murder in a trial that human rights groups labeled a sham.
This trial in U.S. federal court in Manhattan stems from lawsuits filed by relatives of the protesters. They seek unspecified damages from Shell for backing the jailing, torturing and killing of the protesters as well as for polluting the region's air and water.
The lawsuits were brought under a 1789 U.S. statute, the Alien Tort Claims Act, allowing noncitizens to file cases in U.S. courts for human rights abuses occurring overseas. The trial begins on May 26 and is expected to last two weeks.
"Shell was involved in the process that led to my father's execution, they wanted my father out of the way," plaintiff Ken Saro-Wiwa Jr., 40, who is due to testify in the trial, said in an interview. "He stood up for the rights of minority people, he made them stand up for their environmental and human rights, and for that he was executed."
Lawyers for the plaintiffs say evidence in the trial will include documents in which Shell called Saro-Wiwa a threat that should be eliminated.
Protests led by Saro-Wiwa forced Shell in 1993 to abandon its oil fields in Ogoniland, a tiny part of the Niger Delta whose people Saro-Wiwa represented. Nigeria is the world's eighth biggest oil exporter.
"They (Shell) assisted the military regime to deny the human rights of my father and his people," Saro-Wiwa said.
SHELL SAYS ALLEGATIONS LACK MERIT
Shell spokeswoman Robin Lebovitz said the allegations were "without merit." She said the company had tried to persuade the Nigerian government to "grant clemency" to the protesters and that Shell had been "shocked and saddened" by the executions.
"Shell in no way encouraged or advocated any act of violence against them or their fellow Ogonis," Lebovitz said. "We believe that the evidence will show clearly that Shell was not responsible for these tragic events."
Shell also is accused of other abuses against the Ogoni people, including torture and the forced exile of Saro-Wiwa's brother, Dr. Owens Wiwa, and the shootings of two other people in attacks on protesters.
A multinational company has never been found liable of human rights abuses by a U.S. jury, but a few have settled out of court. The Shell case, which could result in millions of dollars in damages, is the third to go to trial and the second involving a major oil company.
In December, a federal jury in San Francisco cleared Chevron Corp of liability sought by Nigerians for a violent clash on an oil platform off their country's coast more than a decade ago.
(Editing by Michelle Nichols and Will Dunham)