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Shell Sued by Family of Eco-Activist Ken Saro-Wiwa

Claims that Shell offered help in exchange for calling off protests
(ENS) LONDON -- The family of writer Ken Saro-Wiwa, who was executed in 1995 by the Nigerian government, is seeking millions of pounds in damages from the Anglo-Dutch oil company Shell in a United States lawsuit. The suit alleges that human rights violations against environmental crusader Saro-Wiwa perpetrated by the Nigerian government of General Sani Abacha are partly the responsibility of the oil company, Britain's "Sunday Independent" reported last week.

"We believe Shell facilitated Saro-Wiwa's execution," said Jenny Green, a lawyer for the family at the New York City based Center for Constitutional Rights. "We believe there is a basis in U.S. law to hold Shell accountable."

Shell denies all wrongdoing and is appealing on a jurisdictional technicality to stop the lawsuit from being heard. The New York District Court ruled in January that it had jurisdiction, but said the case would be better heard in London. Shell is contending in the Second Circuit Court of Appeals in New York that the U.S. does not have jurisdiction for this case. Saro-Wiwa's family is cross-appealing that New York is a better venue than London. Oral arguments are scheduled for this fall.

The existence of the lawsuit emerged last week as a result of demonstrations outside the annual general meeting of Premier Oil in London. If successful, the legal initiative against Shell could have far-reaching implications.

U.S. human rights activists want to extend legal precedents established in the U.S. to make multinational corporations such as Shell financially liable for human rights abuses in the Third World.

Green claims that the Saro-Wiwa family and a second group of defendants from the writer's Ogoni tribe have affidavits in which Shell said to the Saro-Wiwa family, when Ken Saro-Wiwa was in custody, "If you call off the international campaign maybe there's something that can be done to help."

The Ogoni number about 500,000. They live in Ogoni, a region in Rivers State, Nigeria. The region of Ogoni only has an area of 650 square kilometers, resulting in a very high population density. The extraordinary fertility of the Niger delta has historically allowed the Ogoni to make a good living as subsistence farmers and fishing people.

The threat to the Ogoni people started when Shell discovered oil there in 1958. At the time, Nigeria was still under British colonial rule, and the Ogoni had no say in the oil exploitation. With the coming of independence in 1960, the Ogoni situation did not improve. As a minority ethnic group in a country which has a current population of 88 million, the Ogoni have never had an effective say in Nigerian politics.

The environment effects of having more than 100 oil wells, most Shell owned, in Ogoni territory have been severe. Between 1976 and 1991, almost 3,000 separate oil spills, averaging 700 barrels each, occured in the Niger delta.

To protest against Shell's actions and the Nigerian government's indifference, the Ogoni people founded MOSOP, the Movement for the Survival of Ogoni People, in 1992, under the leadership of Nigerian author, Ken Saro-Wiwa. This is how Saro-Wiwa has described their struggle, "The Ogoni people have now decided to make a last ditch stand against the government and against Shell that have ripped them off for the last 35 years." On January 4, 1993, 300,000 Ogoni staged a peaceful mass protest against Shell Oil and the environmental destruction of Ogoni land timed to coincide with the start of the United Nations World Year of Indigenous People.

As massive violence failed to stop Ogoni protests, Sani Abacha targeted Ogoni leaders. In April 1994, 15 Ogoni leaders, including Ken Saro-Wiwa's brother, Owens Wiwa, M.D., were arrested. After his release, Dr. Wiwa fled Nigeria and is now living in North America.

Shell's response to criticism has been to deny that there is a problem
Ken Saro-Wiwa was seized from his home by armed forces on May 22, 1994. He denied government allegations that he was involved in the murder of four Ogoni leaders, maintaining he was not in Ogoni at the time. Saro-Wiwa was held without charge for a number of months, before he was officially charged with the murder. He was denied legal representation or medical attention, though he reportedly suffered four heart attacks in detention.

Saro-Wiwa's trial was marked with irregularities, including the failure of the state to present evidence against him. Ken Saro-Wiwa's defence team withdrew late in June. On October 31, 1995, Ken Saro Wiwa was sentenced to death, along with eight of his co-defendents.

Saro-Wiwa was executed in Port Harcourt on November 10, 1995. His death resulted in an international outcry, and the suspension of Nigeria from the Commonwealth of Nations.

Shell's response to criticism has been to deny that there is a problem. Shell Nigeria's 1995 publication "The Ogoni Issue" states "allegations of environmental devastation in Ogoni, and elsewhere in our operating area, are simply not true. We do have environmental problems but these do not add up to anything like devastation."

In the same pamphlet, however, Shell admits to the existence of 3,000 sites effected by drilling operations, spread across the Delta, the flaring of 1,100 million standard cubic feet of gas a day, and the occurence of acid rain one month a year in the Delta.

© 1999 Environment News Service and reprinted with permission

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Albion Monitor June 7, 1999 (

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