More than 13 years after Nigeria executed writer and activist Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight others, a U.S. civil trial of the Shell Oil Company in connection with those deaths has been postponed. Experts say the delay could be because of a U.S. Court of Appeals ruling Wednesday that reinstated the possibility of Shell's Nigerian subsidiary also facing trial in the case. Or, it could indicate that Shell is working towards settlement of the case that alleges its complicity with human rights abuses in Nigeria in the 1990s. Shell has denied any such involvement.
Activists from environmental and human rights groups rallied last week near the New York court house where a trial of Shell Oil on allegations of complicity in torture, wrongful deaths and other human rights abuses in Nigeria is to take place. Steve Kretzman of Oil Change International summed up the plaintiffs' view.
"This was a case where a multinational corporation completely conspired with a military government to silence peaceful opposition," Kretzman said.
The late writer and poet Ken Saro-Wiwa was the leader of that peaceful movement, founded in 1990, to fight alleged oil company exploitation and pollution in the Niger Delta. The movement charged the ethnic Ogoni peoples' lands were being poisoned by oil spills and gas flaring - the practice of burning off byproducts of oil extraction. And the group said the people were not getting a share of the oil wealth. Saro-Wiwa's movement urged non-violent action.
"In recovering the money that has been stolen from us, I do not want any blood spilled - not of an Ogoni man, not of any strangers amidst us," Saro-Wiwa said. "We are going to demand our rights peacefully, non-violently, and we shall win."
Saro-Wiwa's movement remained peaceful despite government repression. But in 1995, he and eight others were executed after trial by a military tribunal on charges of murdering four other Ogoni leaders. According to the lawsuit filed by Earthrights International and the Center for Constitutional Rights, Shell Oil encouraged and funded Nigeria's military government to imprison the activists. Ken Saro-Wiwa's son, Ken Saro-Wiwa Junior, is one of the plaintiffs.
"We feel their fingerprints are all over the tortures, the murders, the extra-judicial executions of Ogoni people between 1993 and 1996," he said.
Shell Oil officials refused to be interviewed, but have said the allegations are entirely false.
Jonathan Drimmer, an attorney who advises multi-national corporations, says a large settlement by Shell would represent victory for the activist groups who filed the case in a U.S. federal court, because it would fund many similar new lawsuits.
"Each one of these cases that actually gets to this stage, right up to the door of trial, are important cases," Drimmer said. "They're important in demonstrating that these types of issues, human rights violations, can indeed make it through a judicial system and be heard."
International outrage over the execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa and the other men helped lead to the fall of Nigeria's military government. But according to environmentalist and human rights leaders, environmental abuses, particularly toxic gas flaring, are still continuing.
Ben Amunwa is with a group called Remember-Sarowiwa, which is pressing for an end to gas flaring.
"If you drive through the Niger Delta, if you walk through communities, you'll find communities who live beside these enormous flames, which burn 24 hours," Amunwa said. "A cocktail of toxins is released when Shell and other oil companies burn gas like this. Toxins like benzene have been seeping into the water supply and ruining crops, and causing cancer among local communities for many years."
The case is not expected to move ahead until mid-June at the earliest. Barring a settlement, observers say the plaintiffs will likely next seek to persuade the judge to include another defendant, the subsidiary company Shell Nigeria.