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San Jose Mercury News: Shell reclaims station from owner who launched hunger strike

Marina operator hospitalized after 90-protest against ‘big oil companies’

By Larry Parsons
MediaNews
Article Launched: 10/03/2007 11:01:46 AM PDT

A Marina service station operator, who has mounted a personal battle against high gasoline prices, learned Tuesday from his hospital bed that Shell Oil Co. regained legal control of his station.

Mehdi Shahbazi, 65, said he was hospitalized Friday after more than 90 days of maintaining a liquids-only diet. He said he went on the fast to call attention to what he sees as a viselike grip that major oil companies have on U.S. and world economies.

His doctor ordered him to go to Community Hospital of the Monterey Peninsula after he began suffering cramps from his shoulders down, Shahbazi said.

“He wants me to eat,” said Shahbazi, a 37-year veteran of the service station industry who has leased the Shell station in south Marina since 1982.

Shahbazi, who had an intravenous tube in his nose, said his stomach hurt and major organs suffered damage because of his long avoidance of solid food. He vowed to maintain the diet to continue his struggle against “big oil companies.”

“First I have to get out of here and build up my energy,” he said. “If I make it out.”

Shahbazi and Shell became embroiled in a federal legal battle over control of the Marina station after Shahbazi posted signs outside the Del Monte Avenue station decrying “big oil’s unearned profit” in October 2005. That was during a price surge when gasoline prices first edged toward $3 a gallon.

Shell contended Shahbazi violated his lease with the signs; Shahbazi accused the company of breach of contract and of violating the Petroleum Marketing Practices Act. In August, a federal judge said Shell properly terminated the lease, and ordered Shahbazi to vacate the station by the end of September.

The station’s fuel pumps have been ringed by wire fences for two years, while Shahbazi sold candy, car washes and other items from the station’s store. Mostly Shahbazi used the store as a makeshift legal office, where he composed legal papers for his court case.

Shell spokeswoman Alison Chassin said the company took control of the station after Shahbazi voluntarily agreed to “turn over the premises” in accord with the court order.

Shahbazi said a Shell attorney called him to say the company was changing the locks at the station. Shahbazi said he asked the attorney to hold off because he would appeal.

“Right now we are securing the site . . . and evaluating the various options for the site,” Chassin said.

As for Shahbazi’s hospitalization, Chassin said: “We really feel his efforts have been misdirected. We have gone through a series of court rulings, all in our favor. We regret Mr. Shahbazi has decided to do harm to himself.”

Kevin Zarr, a San Francisco Bay Area car dealer who considers Shahbazi his mentor, came to Monterey on Tuesday to visit his friend.

“He’s pretty fragile,” Zarr said. But he said Shahbazi remained committed, despite entreaties by friends worried about his health, to continue his protest.

“He has a very noble cause of fighting for people against oil company price-gouging,” Zarr said.

Shahbazi contends his lengthy experience with service stations gave him intimate knowledge of how oil companies can control prices at the pump. He said his fight is two-pronged: preserving freedom of speech, and protecting consumers.

“Freedom of speech is bigger than price-gouging,” he said. Shahbazi likened his effort to a spark that could start a big fire against “fascist” corporate domination.

He said it would be a “cop out” to give up his protest, despite the danger to his health. Shahbazi said he must be “willing to take the consequences.”

Nursing staff members said they couldn’t release information about Shahbazi’s condition.

He was animated in his conversation during a 30-minute bedside interview, but appeared gaunt and weary. He was preparing for a television interview. He said he asked that his room phone be turned off because he was receiving too many calls.

Zarr said Shahbazi’s protest has drawn widespread media attention.

“He’s made a huge impact,” Zarr said.

Shahbazi said his wife and son, who live in Southern California, are upset about his condition. He acknowledged that many people would think he is off his rocker. But he said people would understand what he’s doing if “they understood what I understand about where this country is headed.”

Shell says it supplies fuel at competitive prices and that more than two dozen state and federal investigations during the past few decades found no evidence of illegal or anti-competitive practices by the oil industry.

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Larry Parsons can be reached at (831) 646-4379 or [email protected]

http://www.mercurynews.com/breakingnews/ci_7072634

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