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Shell reaches $15.5m settlement with Nigerian activists

Financial Times

By Harvey Morris in New York

Published: June 9 2009 03:00 | Last updated: June 9 2009 03:00

Royal Dutch Shell and the families of Ken Saro-Wiwa, an executed Nigerian opposition leader, and other activists hanged by the military government in 1995, yesterday agreed a $15.5m settlement in a court case stemming from allegations the oil group was complicit in the executions.

The settlement, in which Shell and its Nigerian subsidiary denied any liability, ended a 13-year legal campaign by relations and supporters of Saro-Wiwa to hold the company accountable.

A spokesman for the plaintiffs said $5m (£3.1m) of the settlement to be paid by Shell would be put into a trust fund to promote education and welfare in the Ogoniland region of the Niger delta.

The balance would be shared among 10 plaintiffs after legal costs were met, the spokesman said.

Saro-Wiwa and eight other Ogoni activists were hanged after leading a campaign against Shell’s activities in the region and the then military-led government of General Sani Abacha.

Shell, which said the civil case before a federal court in New York was without merit, always insisted it had no role in the execution and had appealed for clemency after the death sentences were handed down by a military tribunal.

Oil production stopped in Ogoniland in 1993 when Shell was forced to cease operations amid mass protests led by Saro-Wiwa against the environmental damage alleged to have been inflicted on the region by the company’s operations.

The plaintiffs had alleged that at the request of Shell, and with Shell’s assistance and financing, Nigerian soldiers used deadly force and massive, brutal raids against the Ogoni people throughout the early 1990s to repress a growing movement against the oil company.

The plaintiffs’ spokesman described yesterday’s outcome as a fair settlement that spared the families of Saro-Wiwa and his fellow activists up to four more years of litigation if the case had gone to trial.

The case was brought under the Alien Tort Statute, a 1789 law that gives non-US citizens the right to file suits in US courts for international human rights violations. The case had been due to go ahead after Shell failed to have the charges dismissed.

Commenting on the establishment of the $5m trust fund, Ken Saro-Wiwa Jr, son of the late activist, said: “In reaching this settlement, we were very much aware that we are not the only Ogonis who have suffered in our struggle with Shell.”

Paul Hoffman, a human rights attorney in the case, said: “This settlement is only a first step towards the resolution of still-outstanding issues between Shell and the Ogoni people.”

A statement by the plaintiffs’ lawyers after the settlement was announced said the settlement was a step towards holding corporations accountable for complicity in human rights violations, wherever they were committed.

“We hope that this settlement provides another building block in the efforts to forge a legal system that holds violators accountable wherever they may be and prevents future violations,” the statement said.

Although it acknowledged no wrongdoing, Shell said it agreed to settle the lawsuit in the hope it would aid the “process of reconciliation”, according to a statement quoted by Associated Press. “This gesture also acknowledges that, even though Shell had no part in the violence that took place, the plaintiffs and others have suffered,” Malcolm Brinded, Shell’s director of exploration and production, said.

The plaintiffs’ lawyers stressed the settlement only reflected the claims of their clients and not those of the Ogoni people, although the outcome had the potential to benefit thousands of other people in Ogoni.

“The Ogoni people have many outstanding issues with Shell, and it is Shell’s responsibility to resolve those issues with the Ogoni people themselves. The plaintiffs do not speak for the Ogoni people, nor have they attempted to resolve those issues,” the lawyers said.

The case had been due to go to trial on May 27 but was repeatedly delayed.

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