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Shell to Pay Out $15.5 Million to Settle Landmark Lawsuit over Death of Nigerian Activist Ken Saro-Wiwa

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The oil giant Royal Dutch Shell has agreed to pay a $15.5 million settlement to avoid a trial over its alleged involvement in human rights violations in the Niger Delta. The case was brought on behalf of ten plaintiffs who accused Shell of complicity in the 1995 executions of Nigerian writer and environmentalist Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight others. We speak to Ken Wiwa, the son of Ken Saro-Wiwa, and attorney Judith Brown Chomsky. [includes rush transcript]

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StoryMay 26, 2009Shell on Trial: Landmark Trial Set to Begin Over Shell’s Role in 1995 Execution of Nigerian Human Rights Activist Ken Saro-Wiwa
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: The oil giant Royal Dutch Shell has agreed to pay a $15.5 million settlement to avoid a trial over its alleged involvement in human rights violations in the Niger Delta. The case was brought on behalf of ten plaintiffs who accused Shell of complicity in the 1995 executions of Nigerian writer and environmentalist Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight others. Ken Saro-Wiwa was the founding member and president of MOSOP, the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People, a group committed to use nonviolence to stop the repression and exploitation of the Ogoni and their land by Shell and the Nigerian government.

Shell was accused of working closely with and financing the Nigerian military government to brutally quell the peaceful resistance against its presence. The plaintiffs had promised to unveil extensive evidence of Shell’s complicity in the killings during the trial.

The case was brought under the US Alien Torts Claim Act and the Torture Victim Protection Act, which allows foreigners to file cases against Americans for crimes committed abroad. The settlement caps a legal battle that began thirteen years ago, one year after Ken Saro-Wiwa’s murder. The plaintiffs say they’ll put $5 million of the settlement money towards a trust fund benefiting the Ogoni people.

Shell did not respond to our interview request. But in a statement, the company said the settlement does not mean it admits to any wrongdoing. Malcolm Brinded, head of the Shell’s exploration and production unit, said, quote, “Shell has always maintained the allegations were false. While we were prepared to go to court to clear our name, we believe the right way forward is to focus on the future for Ogoni people, which is important for peace and stability in the region.”

We now turn to Ken Wiwa, the son of Ken Saro-Wiwa, one of the plaintiffs in the case. He flew back to London on Monday after he and other plaintiffs finalized the Shell settlement. Democracy Now! producer Aaron Maté spoke to Ken Wiwa by telephone shortly after the settlement was announced.

    KEN WIWA: Well, obviously I’m relieved, because we now have an opportunity to draw a line on the sad past and [inaudible] face the future with some hope that what we’ve done here will have changed the way, helped to change the way in which businesses regard their operations abroad. And hopefully, you know, the trust will be set up. Again, we’ll be given indication that we need to focus on the development needs of the people.

    AARON MATE: Can you talk more about this trust that you’ve established?

    KEN WIWA: Well, it’s just — we felt that, you know, any settlements — my father always emphasized to me that there was no such thing as individual success in a collective failure. So when the settlement was being mooted, we thought that one of the things we had to ensure was that there was something given back to the community, as we were very much aware that this was not a class action suit. It was not a suit on behalf of the Ogoni; it was ten private individuals who brought a suit against Shell for their private grief. And so, nevertheless, we felt that it wasn’t — that it wouldn’t be — we wouldn’t be satisfied unless we were able to give something back to the community.

    AARON MATE: What do you hope to see done now in Nigeria?

    KEN WIWA: Well, it depends. You know, we’ve created — I think, hopefully, we’ve created evidence, an example, that with enough commitment to nonviolence and dialogue, you can begin to build some kind of creative justice. And we hope that people will take their signals from that and push for similar examples of creative justice, where communities and all the stakeholders, where oil production is, are able to mutually benefit from oil production, rather than exploitation and degradation of the environment.

    AARON MATE: Do you see this as an admission on Shell’s part of a role in the killing of your father?

    KEN WIWA: Clearly, I mean, they would not have offered anything if they felt that that risk wasn’t there. For us, it’s a moral victory. You know, my father always said that they’ll have their day in court. There are other court cases, and some are aiming to be certified as a class action suit. So this doesn’t preclude that, but what it does do is that it shows that corporations cannot act with impunity in places like Nigeria.

    AARON MATE: Finally, Ken Wiwa, any last thoughts that you want to share with our audience as you complete this lengthy legal battle?

    KEN WIWA: You know, it’s very difficult after you’ve spent fourteen years, you know, to mobilize your thoughts. It’s been a long process, I mean, especially in the last one year and accelerated in the last one month. You know, I’ve been trying to find a workable solution and an equitable solution to these issues for most of my adult life. You know, fourteen years have slipped by, and I seem to have done nothing else but organize myself, my family, and orientate my whole being towards these kinds of — to arrive at some kind of justice.

    And, you know, it feels as if I’ve reached a crossroads in my life. And, you know, one wants to move on with the lessons we’ve learned from the past, hopefully to face the future with more confidence and more hope. And I hope I wake up tomorrow — I mean, I hope to wake up tomorrow or in the next few days with a new sense of purpose and to move on to the next stage.

    But, you know, I think that there’s a bigger picture here. Clearly, there are issues in the Niger Delta, there’s challenges in the Niger Delta, and we need people with solutions. We need — we all know what the problems are. The oil companies know what the problems are. The government knows what the problems are. The community knows what the problems are. But what we need now are the real solutions, and we need them now.

AMY GOODMAN: Ken Wiwa is the son of Ken Saro-Wiwa, who was executed along with eight other Ogoni activists on November 10th, 1995. Now, more than fourteen years later, there has been a settlement in the case of Wiwa v. Shell.

For more on the Shell settlement, I’m joined by Judith Brown Chomsky, one of the lead attorneys in the suit against Shell. She joins me here in the firehouse studio.

Explain what these three suits were. Ken Wiwa, Ken Saro-Wiwa’s son, was one of the ten plaintiffs.

JUDITH BROWN CHOMSKY: That’s right, in each of the suits. One was a suit against the parent companies, one — at that time, there were two separate companies. Shell was made up of two separate companies, one in The Hague and one in London. So that’s one suit. The second suit was against Shell Petroleum Development Company, which is the Shell entity that operates in Nigeria. And the third was against Brian Anderson, who was the head of the Nigerian Shell company.

AMY GOODMAN: And where is he today?

JUDITH BROWN CHOMSKY: I believe he’s either in China or in France. But he’s definitely not in the United States.

AMY GOODMAN: And your reaction to this settlement? You were prepared to go to trial right here in New York.

JUDITH BROWN CHOMSKY: That’s right. And, of course, I mean, we’re trial lawyers, so we’re anxious to go to trial. But it was better for the plaintiffs to have this settlement. It was certainty and an end. It’s been a very long and very difficult path for the plaintiffs themselves.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to go to break, then come back. What the trial was you were going to have? What were the charges against the Shell corporation? Judith Brown Chomsky is a cooperating attorney with the Center for Constitutional Rights, lead attorney in the case against Shell, which, it was just announced today in a landmark case, has settled for $15.5 million. Back in a minute.


AMY GOODMAN: As we report on this landmark settlement between plaintiffs and the Shell corporation, our guest today in the firehouse studio is Judith Brown Chomsky. She is the cooperating attorney with the Center for Constitutional Rights, was the lead attorney in the case against Shell.

Before we go back to our conversation, I wanted to go back to a conversation I had with Ken Saro-Wiwa, with Pacifica station WBAI in New York. I was co-hosting the morning show with Bernard White, and a Nigerian activist brought Ken Saro-Wiwa into the studio unannounced. It was Ken’s final visit to the United States. It was just before he returned to Nigeria, was arrested, then tried and convicted — and executed.

    KEN SARO-WIWA: Shell does not want to negotiate with the Ogoni people. Each time they’ve come under pressure from local people, their want has always been to run to the Nigerian government and to say to the Nigerian government, “Oil is 90 percent of your foreign exchange earning. If anything happens to oil, your economy will be destroyed. Therefore, you must go and deal with these people, these troublemakers.” And most times, the government will oblige them and visit local communities of poor, dispossessed people with a lot of violence.

    And when these communities then protested and said, “Look. Look at the amount of violence that is being used against us, even though we are only protesting peacefully,” then the oil companies will come and say, “Well, there is no way we can determine how much violence a government decides to use against its own people.” So, basically, the local communities have no leverage with the oil companies at all.

    AMY GOODMAN: Who is the government now of Nigeria?

    KEN SARO-WIWA: There is a military government in power at this time. And indeed, military people have been in power in the country for a long time.

    AMY GOODMAN: Because they suspended the results of the elections?

    KEN SARO-WIWA: Yes, indeed. But for a long time now, Nigeria has been under military dictatorships. And the oil companies like military dictatorships, because basically they can cheat with these dictatorships. The dictatorships are brutal to people, and they can deny the rights of — human rights of individuals and of communities quite easily, without compunction.

    AMY GOODMAN: Ken Saro-Wiwa, how does the oil companies — how do Shell and Chevron deal with you as the president of the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People?

    KEN SARO-WIWA: Well, recently, when the protests started, Shell, they had a meeting. And the operatives of Shell in Nigeria and of those at The Hague in the Netherlands, and in London, held a meeting, and they decided that they would have to keep an eye on me, watch wherever I go to, follow me constantly, to ensure that I do not embarrass Shell. So, as far as I’m concerned, I’m a marked man.

AMY GOODMAN: “I’m a marked man” — those, the words of Ken Saro-Wiwa in the studios of Pacifica station WBAI in 1994. He went home to Nigeria, was arrested, was tried, and he was executed along with eight other Ogoni activists.

Four years later, in 1998, I had a chance to go to Nigeria with Democracy Now! journalist Jeremy Scahill, and we talked to Ken Saro-Wiwa’s father, Jim Wiwa. It was in 1998. We visited him at his home in Ogoniland in the Niger Delta. Jim Wiwa died in April of 2005. He was believed to be 101 years old. During our interview, Jim Wiwa spoke about his son Ken Saro-Wiwa’s life and Shell’s alleged role in his murder.

    JIM WIWA: My name is Jim Beeson Wiwa. I am the father of Kenule Saro-Wiwa. Saro-Wiwa is — Kenule Saro-Wiwa was my own son, and he fought for the Ogoni people, to liberate them from the hands of Nigeria because of human rights. He did not avoid the struggle, because the Nigeria were cheating the Ogoni people, together with Shell.

    Shell was the first person the Nigerian government used to loot our property, to burn our houses. They were the first people who passed through the water. They shoot us. And since then, Shell has not been able to reach here, since the death of Ken, because I think Shell has hands on the killing of Kenule Saro-Wiwa. Ken has hands in it.

    AMY GOODMAN: Shell.

    JIM WIWA: I believe that.

    AMY GOODMAN: Shell has a hand?

    JIM WIWA: Shell has hand on the killing of my own son, because they were the first people who came here to fight the Ogoni people on our own rights, on our own resources, which God has given us.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Ken Saro-Wiwa’s father, Jim Beeson Wiwa, when we met with him in Ogoniland in his home, where Ken had once lived, in Ogoniland in the Niger Delta in Nigeria.

Judith Brown Chomsky with us on this historic day. It’s the day after a landmark settlement that Shell has reached with ten plaintiffs, among them Ken Saro-Wiwa’s son, Ken Wiwa, and his brother, Dr. Owens Wiwa, who has now returned to Nigeria. Why did they settle, Judith?

JUDITH BROWN CHOMSKY: Well, I believe they settled because they didn’t want the public exposure of their relationship with the military government and their involvement in human rights abuses in Ogoni and in Nigeria.

AMY GOODMAN: How unusual is it that they’re willing to talk about this publicly? How often we hear “in a settlement with undisclosed amounts,” like Unocal, when Unocal settled with those who were charging it with being involved with slave labor in building the pipeline in Burma, with Unocal now taken over by Chevron?

JUDITH BROWN CHOMSKY: It is very unusual. I actually don’t know of another case involving any human rights or even civil rights issues which resulted in a totally public settlement.

AMY GOODMAN: Tell us who the plaintiffs were. We know his son, Ken Wiwa, who we just heard, his brother, Owens Wiwa.

JUDITH BROWN CHOMSKY: Right. There were two people who were injured, or one killed, one injured, in the villages by the military that was accompanying Shell. So that connection is very direct. One woman lost her arm when she was protesting the plowing of her fields and her crops by a Shell contractor. Another man was killed when he was just walking down the road by a military officer who had been brought to his village in a Shell bus in the company of Shell’s security. The others were all — the other decedents, the other people who died, were executed with Ken in 1995. Another person is Michael Vizor, who was tried along with Ken Saro-Wiwa and the others, but was released, but who had been severely tortured during his imprisonment and, in fact, is somewhat disabled by the torture. And, of course, Owens Wiwa, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: If you had taken this case to trial, on the issue of Shell’s involvement in the murder of Ken Saro-Wiwa, his execution, what was your evidence?

JUDITH BROWN CHOMSKY: Well, there’s the general evidence of the partnership between the military government and Shell. There are a lot of documents from Shell, statements by Shell officials, that show how intertwined Shell was with the military government.

Separate from that, there is specific evidence. One is Shell’s participation in the bribing of a witness — of two witnesses against Ken Saro-Wiwa and the others. And the other is a series of conversations between Dr. Owens Wiwa and three — and Brian Anderson, who had been the head of Shell in Nigeria, in which essentially Brian Anderson said, “We can free Ken Saro-Wiwa, we can free your brother, if you will guarantee to stop the campaign, the international campaign against Shell.”

AMY GOODMAN: I remember Dr. Owens Wiwa saying this on Democracy Now!, that that is what Shell told him, and Owens Wiwa turning to him and saying, “Even if my brother wanted to say that, which he wouldn’t, he does not have control over the international community and its feelings about Shell in the Niger Delta.”

JUDITH BROWN CHOMSKY: That’s quite correct, yeah. It is amazing that a corporation can so directly and overtly control a government. The relationship between Shell and the Nigerian government was and is extraordinary.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, explain the legal theory under which you were suing, the Alien Tort Claims Act. I actually said it slightly wrong when I introduced it, saying that anyone in the world can, on US soil, sue American; it’s actually sue anyone in the world, right? But over what?

JUDITH BROWN CHOMSKY: The statute is 200 years old. It permits an alien, someone not born in the United States, to sue for a violation of what’s called the Law of Nations. The Supreme Court has said that the Law of Nations are those things that are universally accepted, have some specific content, and are requirements that are put on all nations, regardless of their willingness to abide by them.

AMY GOODMAN: This was to deal with piracy?

JUDITH BROWN CHOMSKY: Earlier, it dealt with piracy and insults to diplomatic people, were the earliest things that were recognized. But in a Supreme Court case called Sosa, the Supreme Court recognized that those things which are universally accepted has expanded: torture, crimes against humanity, genocide, and in this case, extrajudicial killing, or summary execution.

AMY GOODMAN: What about the Torture Victim Protection Act?

JUDITH BROWN CHOMSKY: There was a period of time, after the beginning of the modern implementation of the Alien Tort Statute, that it seemed like it wasn’t clear that there would be a — that it would survive, that the modern use of the Alien Tort Statute would survive, and therefore Congress passed the Torture Victim Protection Act, which covers only torture and summary execution, or extrajudicial killing.

AMY GOODMAN: As we visited Ken Saro-Wiwa’s parents in Ogoniland, hundreds of Ogoni people came out to greet us. And an Ogoni man stepped forward from the villagers there, and he began reciting the final speech of Ken Saro-Wiwa, made shortly before he was hanged.

    OGONI MAN: I have no doubt at all about the ultimate success of my cause, no matter the trials and tribulations which I and those who believe with me may encounter on our journey. Neither imprisonment nor death can stop our ultimate victory. I repeat that we all stand before history. I and my colleagues are not the only ones on trial. Shell is here on trial, and it is as well that…

    JEREMY SCAHILL: When we visited the parents of Ken Saro-Wiwa a few days before coming to Ilajeland, this man stood up and recited Saro-Wiwa’s closing statement before the military tribunal that would ultimately hang him.

    OGONI MAN: In my innocence of the false charge I face here, in my utter conviction, I call upon the Ogoni people, the peoples of the Niger Delta and the oppressed ethnic minorities of Nigeria to stand up now and fight fearlessly and peacefully for their rights. History is on their side. God is on their side.

AMY GOODMAN: Ken Saro-Wiwa’s words, spoken by an Ogoni man in Ogoniland in 1998, the last public words of Ken Saro-Wiwa. He was hanged on November 10, 1995.

Judith Brown Chomsky, this is a landmark settlement. Where do you go from here?

JUDITH BROWN CHOMSKY: More cases. We’re already working on what’s called the apartheid cases, cases against companies that supported the apartheid regime in South Africa. And that will be here in New York. We have individual cases against individual people who were involved in human rights abuses. But there’s a lot of work for human rights lawyers, so there’s no shortage of things to do.

AMY GOODMAN: The settlement, again, that has been reached, Wiwa v. Shell, $15.5 million. We’ll end with Ken Saro-Wiwa’s own words, captured on videotape when he was alive, organizing in the Niger Delta.

    KEN SARO-WIWA: The indigenous people have been cheated through laws such as are operated in Nigeria today. Through political marginalization, they have driven certain people to death. 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 amongst us. We are going to demand our rights peacefully, nonviolently, and we shall win.

AMY GOODMAN: Ken Saro-Wiwa, executed November 10th, 1995, along with eight other Ogoni rights activists.

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