Nigeria/Netherlands: Kiobel witness hearing key chance to hold Shell to account over human rights abuses

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A witness hearing examining Shell’s role in the execution of nine men in Nigeria in the 1990s is a key opportunity to hold the oil giant to account over its alleged complicity in human rights abuses, Amnesty International said.

The Kiobel v Shell case resumes at The Hague on 8 October and will for the first time hear accounts from individuals who accuse Shell of offering them bribes to give fake testimonies that led to the ‘Ogoni Nine’ – who included Esther Kiobel’s husband – being sentenced to death and executed.  

For more than twenty years Shell has escaped scrutiny over its role in these tragic events. We applaud the courage and persistence of Esther Kiobel and the other women who have brought this case
Mark Dummett, Business and Human Rights Researcher at Amnesty International.

“For more than twenty years Shell has escaped scrutiny over its role in these tragic events. We applaud the courage and persistence of Esther Kiobel and the other women who have brought this case,” said Mark Dummett, Business and Human Rights Researcher at Amnesty International.

“This case exemplifies how hard it can be for the victims of human rights abuses to hold a powerful multinational corporation to account.”

Esther Kiobel and three other women – Victoria Bera, Blessing Eawo and Charity Levula – accuse Shell of being complicit in the unlawful arrest, detention and execution of their husbands. The men were hanged in 1995 along with renowned activist Ken Saro-Wiwa and four other men after they were convicted in a blatantly unfair trial.

The ‘Ogoni Nine’, as they were known, were accused of being involved in the murder of four Ogoni chiefs known to be opponents of the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP). Led by Ken Saro-Wiwa, MOSOP had protested against oil pollution caused by Shell’s operations in the Ogoniland region.

“These four Nigerian widows represent the cause of the Ogoni Nine, as well as countless residents of the Niger Delta who feel that their rights have been trampled on by Shell,” said Mark Dummett.

These four Nigerian widows represent the cause of the Ogoni Nine, as well as countless residents of the Niger Delta who feel that their rights have been trampled on by Shell
Mark Dummett

Amnesty supported Esther Kiobel’s legal team to bring the case to the Netherlands in 2017, and detailed Shell’s role in the arrests and executions in a briefing, In The Dock

At the case’s first hearing in February 2019, Esther Kiobel and Victoria Bera were both allowed to speak to the court and gave moving testimonies regarding their late husbands and subsequent struggles for justice. It was the first time either had had such an opportunity.

On 1 May, the court ruled in favour of the plaintiffs, that it did have jurisdiction of the case and that this should not be time barred. It also ruled that Shell should hand over some confidential internal documents to the plaintiffs’ lawyers.

The court, however, did not order Shell to release other confidential internal documents, which were requested by Esther Kiobel’s legal team.  It also dismissed some of the other important allegations made by the plaintiffs, relating to Shell’s close ties with the Nigerian government and the extent to which the company supported a crackdown by the military against the Ogoni people in the 1990s. This resulted in a large but unknown number of people being killed, detained, raped and tortured.

Shell disputes all allegations and argued that the court should also dismiss the claim on jurisdictional grounds and because the events took place so long ago.  

For more information about Esther Kiobel’s battle for justice, see One Woman Vs Shell.

Timeline of the case:

2002: Esther Kiobel first sued Shell in the USA, where she had been granted asylum.

2013: US Supreme Court ruled that it did not have jurisdiction over the case, meaning US courts never got to examine the facts of the case.

2017: Esther Kiobel filed a new civil case against Shell in The Netherlands, Shell’s home state, together with Victoria Bera, Blessing Eawo and Charity Levula.

February 2019: The District Court of The Hague heard the first arguments in Esther’s case against Shell. This was also the first time Esther Kiobel and Victoria Bera were allowed to speak to the court. Blessing Eawo and Charity Levula, who still live in Nigeria, were refused visas to travel to Europe.

May 2019: Court ruled that the case was not time-barred and that the court did have jurisdiction over the case. It ordered that the plaintiffs’ lawyers hear witnesses and provide further evidence as to whether Shell bribed people to testify against the Ogoni Nine. The court also ruled that Shell hand over some internal documents concerning communication within Shell about the trial of the Ogoni Nine. However, it did not order the release of other confidential internal documents requested by the plaintiffs’ legal team.

October 2019: For the first time the Court will hear witnesses.