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Shell faces Saro-Wiwa death claim

Financial Times

By Matthew Green in Lagos and Michael Peel in London

Published: April 4 2009 03:00 | Last updated: April 4 2009 03:00

The death of Ken Saro-Wiwa, the Nigerian activist, will return to haunt Royal Dutch Shell this month when a potentially groundbreaking court case opens in the US alleging the company was complicit in his execution.

Lawyers are hoping to hold Shell to account for sponsoring what they describe as a campaign of terror by Nigeria’s security forces in Ogoni in the Niger Delta that culminated in Saro-Wiwa’s hanging in 1995. The case is a key test of whether multinationals based in the US or operating there can be successfully sued for damages over their operations abroad. Proceedings are due to open at a New York court on April 27.

The claim filed by plaintiffs including Ken Saro-Wiwa Jr, the late activist’s eldest son, accuse Shell of complicity in human rights violations committed by the former military government.

Shell is also accused of collaborating with the authorities who arranged Saro-Wiwa’s detention and eventual execution along with eight other Ogoni activists on trumped-up murder charges. The suit says the company tried to bribe two men to testify against Saro-Wiwa at his trial before a special tribunal.

“Almost daily you get a reminder that your father was hanged for a crime he didn’t commit,” Mr Saro-Wiwa Jr told the Financial Times. “We’ve always maintained that Shell was complicit in the conspiracy to silence my father and thousands of other Ogonis.”

Shell says the allegations contained in the case are false and that the company appealed for clemency for Saro-Wiwa. “We in no way encouraged or advocated any acts of violence against Ken Saro-Wiwa or the other Ogonis,” said Rainer Winzenried, a Shell spokesman. “We believe that the evidence will show clearly that Shell was not responsible for these tragic events.”

Saro-Wiwa mobilised hundreds of thousands of Ogoni people to launch peaceful protests against environmental damage caused by oil companies in the Delta. His hanging provoked a global outcry and precipitated a backlash by human rights groups against Shell.

To many in the Niger Delta, the deaths of Saro-Wiwa and the other activists marked a turning point that pushed the region into the violence rampant in the region today.

The suit is being brought under the Alien Tort Claims Act, a law that has been used in a number of cases since the mid-1990s to target companies over their actions in nations from Liberia to Indonesia.

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