05 April 2009
Shell in court over Saro-Wiwa execution
In 1995 Ken Saro-Wiwa swore that one day Shell, the oil giant, would answer for complicity in his death in a court of law. On 26 May his dying wish is to be fulfilled.
According to today’s Observer, Shell and one of its senior executives are to face charges in a New York federal court that in the early 1990s they were complicit in human rights abuses in Nigeria. If found liable, then the company could be forced to pay hundreds of millions of pounds in damages.
Saro-Wiwa campaigned on behalf of the Ogoni people, leading peaceful protests against the environmental damage caused by oil companies in the Niger Delta. There was worldwide condemnation when, along with eight other activists, he was hanged by the Nigerian military government in 1995 after being charged with incitement to murder after the death of four Ogoni elders. Many of the prosecution witnesses later admitted that they had been bribed to give evidence against Saro-Wiwa, who was a respected television writer and businessman.
Lawyers in New York will allege that Shell actively subsidised a campaign of terror by security forces in the Niger Delta and attempted to influence the trial that led to Saro-Wiwa's execution. The lawsuit alleges that the company attempted to bribe two witnesses in his trial to testify against him. Members of Saro-Wiwa's family will take the stand for the first time to give their version of events, among them his brother Owens, who will allege that Brian Anderson, managing director of Shell's Nigerian subsidiary, told him: "It would not be impossible to get charges dropped if protests were called off." Anderson is fighting the action.
Saro-Wiwa's son, Ken Wiwa, said: "For 14 years we have lived with the memory of a father, an uncle, a brother, a son executed for a crime he didn't commit. We have daily reminders. It's painful to live with a monstrous injustice. To wake up one day to finally get our day in court is tremendously satisfying. Part of the reason for the original protest was the way Shell behaved. Ogoni people made their living farming and fishing, but Shell was using open waste pits and oil pipelines criss-crossed the land. These polluting activities were put on top of a delicate ecosystem. It destroyed people's ability to sustain themselves. That's the impact of Shell and, when people tried to protest, they were brutally repressed."
Shell described the executions of the Ogoni 9 as "tragic events carried out by the Nigerian government in power at the time".
Jenny Green, a senior lawyer at the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights, said: "Mosop [the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People] was formed to stand up to multinationals and the dictatorship that acted hand-in-hand. This is a significant moment, because it says you can't act with impunity."
For more information on Ken Saro-Wiwa’s life and legacy, go to Remember Ken Saro-Wiwa