A Dutch court said on Wednesday it has jurisdiction to hear a damages suit brought against energy company Royal Dutch Shell by four widows of Ogoni activists executed by the Abacha government in 1995.
In a preliminary ruling, judges at the Hague District Court said they would allow the suit to go forward, but cautioned that they did not agree with assertions by the widows that Shell should have done more to prevent their husbands’ deaths.
The men executed were a group known as the “Ogoni Nine”, led by Ken Saro Wiwa – activists who had protested against Shell’s exploitation of the Niger Delta and who were executed after a trial widely seen as flawed.
Esther Kiobel , along with Victoria Bera, Blessing Eawo and Charity Levula, is seeking an apology and compensation from Shell. Their husbands were hanged in 1995 after a military tribunal convicted them for the murder of four political rivals.
In a preliminary decision, judges at the Hague District Court said they would allow the suit to go forward, a rare win in a decades-long legal fight, though the claimants must still prove their case.
“The court considers itself capable” of hearing the case, said presiding judge Larissa Alwin, reading the decision of a three-judge panel. “This procedure will continue.”
Dutch courts do not award large punitive damages claims, though the case has the potential to embarrass Shell and provide a measure of comfort for the activists’ families if it finds the company bears responsibility in their deaths.
The men executed were a group that became known as the “Ogoni Nine” – activists who included writer Ken Saro-Wiwa. They had protested against Shell’s exploitation of the Niger Delta until they were arrested and hanged after a trial widely seen as flawed.
Relatives have sought to hold the Anglo-Dutch energy company partially responsible in foreign courts, after exhausting legal possibilities in Nigeria.
Shell, headquartered in the Hague, paid $15.5 million (£11.8 million) to victims’ families in the United States in a 2009 settlement in which it also denied any responsibility or wrongdoing. The U.S. Supreme Court rejected U.S. jurisdiction in 2013.
“I am glad that the (Dutch) court has found it has jurisdiction,” said lead plaintiff Esther Kiobel, whose husband Barinem Kiobel was among the executed activists.
“My husband was killed like a criminal. I want him to be exonerated.”
Judge Alwin cautioned that the three-judge panel did not agree with assertions by the widows that Shell should have done more to prevent their husbands’ executions.
But she ordered the company to turn over documents that could help the claimants’ case, including any evidence that Shell might have made payments to people who gave false information to Nigerian law-enforcement officials.
In a written statement, Shell denied involvement and said the company appealed in vain for clemency to Nigeria’s military rulers at the time
“SPDC did not collude with the authorities to suppress community unrest, it in no way encouraged or advocated any act of violence in Nigeria, and it had no role in the arrest, trial and execution of these men,” the statement said. “We believe that the evidence clearly shows that Shell was not responsible for these distressing events.”
“We continue to deny all the allegations in the strongest possible terms,” Shell representative Igo Weli said.
“Shell was not responsible for what happened. Shell actually made an appeal for clemency, but sadly this was not heard.”
Weli, who works for Shell’s Nigerian subsidiary, said the company would give the claimants access to internal documents as ordered.
Mark Dummett, Amnesty International’s Head of Business and Human Rights, said:
“This decision marks a vital step towards justice for Esther and the other plaintiffs. It also sets an important precedent for other victims around the world who are seeking to hold powerful corporations to account, and who struggle to access justice.
“We salute Esther Kiobel, Victoria Bera, Blessing Eawo and Charity Levula. It’s only because of their courage and persistence that we’ve got this far.
“The women believe their husbands would still be alive today were it not for Shell’s relentless pursuit of profit, which encouraged the Nigerian government’s bloody crackdown on protesters even when it knew the deadly human cost. Shell might now face questioning in a court of law about what they knew and how they contributed to this horrifying event in Nigerian history.
“Today’s ruling will have great significance for people everywhere who have been harmed by the greed and recklessness of global corporations.”
No date has yet been set for a next hearing.