By Daniel Howden, Africa Correspondent, The Independent
26 May 2009
Royal Dutch Shell will revisit one of the darkest periods of its history tomorrow as a potentially groundbreaking court case opens in New York.
The oil giant stands accused of complicity in the 1995 execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa, a Nigerian environmental activist.
The world’s boardrooms are watching the case, which is seen as a test of whether transnational companies owned or operating in the US can be held responsible for human rights abuses committed abroad.
A collection of cases brought by torture victims in the oil-rich Niger Delta and by relatives of those killed has been brought together under the umbrella of Wiwa v Shell.
The plaintiffs include Ken Saro-Wiwa’s son, Ken Wiwa Jnr, and his brother, Owens Wiwa.
For Shell, which denies any involvement in the environmentalist’s killing, ordered by the government of Sani Abacha, the case represents an unwelcome public hearing of grievances that the company has spent time and money trying to make people forget.
Mr Saro-Wiwa was hanged in November 1995 after being convicted by a military tribunal in which he was denied proper legal representation or appeal. Shell subsequently faced a storm of protest and Nigeria was suspended from the Commonwealth. The then British prime minister John Major called the execution “judicial murder”.
Tomorrow’s proceedings will see the Dutch-based energy giant charged with collaborating with Nigerian authorities in the execution of Mr Saro-Wiwa and eight other members of his ethnic Ogoni group on “trumped-up charges”. Shell has vigorously denied any involvement and says it appealed to the Abacha government for clemency on Mr Saro-Wiwa’s part.
The suit also alleges that the company consistently conspired with military authorities to violently put down peaceful protests by the Ogoni people, hundreds of thousands of whom Mr Saro-Wiwa had helped to mobilise.
“I have always maintained that Shell was complicit in the conspiracy to silence my father along with thousands of other Ogonis,” said his eldest son, Ken Wiwa Jnr.