A trial currently underway in San Francisco is attempting to answer this question. According to plaintiff Larry Bowoto, 10 years ago a peaceful protest on Chevron’s Parabe drilling platform resulted in the deaths of two non-violent protestors, an injury to Bowoto, and the torture of other protestors. Witnesses for the plaintiff in the trial, which began Oct. 29, will testify that Chevron paid and supervised the Nigerian military, which shot, tortured, and killed protestors during the demonstration in 1998. Bowoto and more than 100 members of the local Ilage fishing communities went to the platform to protest the environmental damage and economic disruption they claimed Chevron’s activities had brought to their homes in the Niger Delta. The prosecution will attempt to prove that Chevron paid members of the notorious Nigerian military and “kill and go” mobile police and ferried them to the platform in Chevron-leased helicopters, with Chevron personnel supervising the operation. All of this information comes from EarthRights International, a human rights group that is representing Bowoto in the trial. Not surprisingly, the release on Chevron’s website paints a slightly different picture. Chevron refers to the “peaceful protest” as a “hostage-taking incident” and maintains that its platform workers, working for Chevron Nigeria Limited (CNL), were threatened with violence and feared for their lives. “More than 100 CNL workers and contractors were held for ransom and threatened with acts of violence,” the company states. “Now the hostage-takers are suing Chevron, claming that CNL should not have reported the matter to Nigerian law enforcement officials and that the Nigerian authorities used excessive force in rescuing the workers.” A statement from Chevron’s Vice President and General Counsel Charles A. James reads, “… workers should have the right to go to work without being taken hostage, and holding innocent people for ransom should not be rewarded through a lawsuit in the US.” The report goes on to state that Bowoto and other citizens threatened CNL with violence and sea piracy if the company did not pay them money and give them jobs. Weeks later they seized the platform, an adjacent barge, and a tugboat, holding CNL employees and contractors hostage and demanding money and other considerations. CNL tried to negotiate without success. While eyewitnesses for the plaintiffs will argue that the situation turned ugly without help from the protestors, Chevron’s eyewitnesses relate that the hostage-takers poured diesel fuel on the barge and threatened to set it on fire. At this point CNL brought in the Nigerian Navy. During the rescue, shots were fired, no doubt leading to Bowoto’s injury and the resulting deaths. However, the Ilage still managed to force seven of the workers to a village, where they were held for three more days before their release was secured. It will be interesting to learn the results of this trial. Will the courts decide that innocent civilians are being bullied by Big Bad Oil, or will they determine that the more successful a company is, the more likely it is to be sued by opportunists? Watch this space.
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