Washington, DC — In a landmark development which could open the door for a flood of lawsuits against oil companies operating in the country, Chevron Nigeria Ltd is to stand trial later this year in the United States for the alleged murder of villagers in the Niger Delta region in two separate incidents in 1998 and 1999.
In a series of ruling issued yesterday, the United States (US) District Court Judge in San Francisco, Susan Illston, ruled that Chevron was directly involved in the alleged attacks by acting in consonance with Nigerian government security forces, paving the way for a trial which the company had made spirited attempts to avoid for eight years.
The lawsuit was brought against Chevron eight years ago in San Francisco Federal Court by nine Nigerian plaintiffs for alleged deaths and other abuses in the two incidents in 1998 and 1999. The plaintiffs assert claims ranging from torture to wrongful death.
According to information made available to THISDAY, Judge Illston "found evidence that CNL [Chevron Nigeria Limited] personnel were directly involved in the attacks; CNL transported the GSF [Nigerian government security forces], CNL paid the GSF; and CNL knew that GSF were prone to use excessive force."
The report alleged that the crime occurred when the Nigerian Military and Police were paid by Chevron to shoot and torture protesters opposed to the company's activities in the troubled region. Chevron helicopters and boats were used by the security forces, resulting in torture and wrongful death, it further alleged.
The said evidence, the Judge said, will allow a jury to find that Chevron knew the attacks would happen and supported the military's plan.
"We're pleased that our clients will finally get justice for Chevron's crimes," said the plaintiffs' counsel Theresa Traber, partner at Traber & Voorhees.
Continuing, she said, "Chevron conspired with and paid the notorious Nigerian military to attack our clients and their loved ones, murdering at least seven people, torturing others and burning two villages to the ground. The court correctly refused to let narrow legalistic excuses allow Chevron to escape responsibility for these brutal attacks."
In his statement, the Litigation Co-ordinator for EarthRights International, Rick Herz said that "the court's ruling reaffirmed that corporations who are complicit in human rights abuses can be held accountable, regardless of where those abuses occur."
Asked to comment on how a case involving a huge and powerful multinational like Chevron would play out, the Legal Director of EarthsRights International told THISDAY in Washington DC that "Chevron has very expensive legal counsel, there's no doubt about that. But they've been trying for eight years now to dismiss this case and they failed. So their expensive lawyers so far have not been able to get them off, to avoid accountability for their action and at this point it's going to be a jury that decides Chevron's faith. And all of Chevron's money and power won't necessarily have much impact on a jury."
Mr. Oronto Douglas, Deputy Director of Environmental Rights Action/Friends of the Earth Nigeria and one of the lawyers representing the case here in Nigeria, told THISDAY last night that the decision is a "demonstration that there is no hiding place for corporate criminals." He saluted "the courage, the forthrightness, the clarity and the firmness of the pronouncements of the judge. This is a lesson to other corporations who think they can ride roughshod over defenceless communities who live on lands where vital resources are in abundance. The judgment also indicates that there is hope for other communities in other parts of the Niger Delta where environmental vandalism and human rights abuses have gone on without redress."
Chevron officials in Nigeria did not make any comments when contacted last night.
Trial in the case, Bowoto v. Chevron Corp., No 99-2506 is expected within the year. In addition to ERI and Traber &Voorhees, the plaintiffs are represented by the private law firms of Hadsell & Stormer and Siegel & Yee, the Center for Constitutional Rights and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and Paul Hoffman, Michael Sorgen, Robert Newman, Anthony DiCaprio, Elizabeth Gu-arnieri, and Richard Wiebe.