(GIN) - The Supreme Court opens its 2012-2013 term today with a landmark case to decide whether survivors of human rights violations in foreign countries can bring lawsuits against corporations in U.S. courts.
In the case, Kiobel v Royal Dutch Petroleum, the oil giant is accused of being an accomplice to torture, extrajudicial executions and crimes against humanity by the Nigerian government between 1992 and 1995 in the Niger Delta region. Ken Saro wiwa, a noted activist for the Ogoni people, was lynched with other activists for criticizing Shell Oil in November 1995.
Shell is alleged have helped the former dictatorship arrest and torture Saro-Wiwa and 12 Ogonis who had sought to peacefully disrupt oil development because of its health and environmental impacts.
Esther Kiobel, now a US citizen, brought her claims on behalf of her late husband, Barinem Kiobel, who was executed in a sham trial in which Shell is alleged to have played a key role. Shell is now trying to deny the plaintiffs—and all victims of foreign human rights crimes—the right to seek justice in U.S. courts.
At issue now is whether multinational corporations, allegedly complicit in such overseas abuses, are also liable.
Justices indicated in February that the statute doesn't permit suits against corporations but decided to re-examine the wider question of whether the statute can apply beyond US borders.
This case is being closely watched as it has implications for several other pending actions, including a group of Indonesian villagers who accuse oil giant Exxon Mobil's security forces of murder and torture.
Attorneys for Shell argue that the oil giant cannot be held legally responsible in the United States for offenses allegedly committed far from American shores.
"This case has nothing to do with the US," said Shell attorney Kathleen Sullivan, adding that the petitioners were seeking legal redress "against an Anglo-Dutch corporation for something that happened entirely in Nigeria."
A decision is not expected until next year.