TorteDeForm

Kia Franklin

State dept’s decision could protect big oil

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11 of 12 foreign witnesses in a legal battle against Chevron were denied visas that would allow them to testify in federal court about the corporation's alleged human rights violations. According to this article, the state department said the visas were denied because there was "little proof they would return home after testifying." This decision compromises the function of our court system and could protect Big Oil from potentially damaging testimony in an important human rights case. And it represents a warped calculus in light of what's at stake.

More about the case:

The case stems from a nine-year-long legal battle by Nigerian villagers seeking to hold multinational Chevron Corp. liable for allegedly aiding the Nigerian military in attacks that killed and wounded protesters at Chevron oil facilities in 1998 and 1999, Bowoto v. Chevron Corp., No. 99-cv-2506SI.

An SFGate article gives more detail about the protest at issue:

More than 100 people had occupied the rig for three days, saying the company was polluting their land and water and denying employment to their people. The lawsuit says Chevron summoned government forces to the scene, supplied their helicopters and supervised their actions, despite knowing the violent reputation of the military police.

The remote possibility that these witnesses could decide to live half the world away from their family, village, and traditions, and violate their visas in a high profile case in which they have a highly visible role, is simply not worth the risk of not allowing them to testify in person, in front of a jury. Denying them access to the witness stand could potentially leave the deaths of innocent people unvindicated and send the message that protesting corporate abuse will get you killed and there will be no recourse for your family, certainly not through the courts.

Here's what the U.S. District judge had to say about it:

"I am shocked that the State Department would take that point of view, that [the witnesses] will not be granted visas to testify in a federal court," Illston said in the unusual emergency court session Friday, in which plaintiffs sought the trial delay.

"That is a different branch of government and I can't do anything about it," Illston said, "but I am shocked."

The visa denial has led to insinuations that Chevron pressured Nigerian and U.S. governments against allowing the witnesses to travel here. Chevron vehemently denies this. But even without Chevron saying a word, it seems that this instance represents how corporate power has managed to reshape the way decisions are made and risks assessed regarding the importance of upholding important laws and human rights obligations through the courts.

The compromise: the judge has postponed the trial another month, and will let witnesses testify by video conference if they cannot obtain their visas by then. Lawyers for the villagers say this is no substitute for testifying in person.

This isn't the only instance in which oil companies have been accused of being involved in human rights violations in Nigeria. Yet another reason to ride that bike a little more often, huh?

"I am shocked that the State Department would take that point of view, that [the witnesses] will not be granted visas to testify in a federal court," Illston said in the unusual emergency court session Friday, in which plaintiffs sought the trial delay.

"That is a different branch of government and I can't do anything about it," Illston said, "but I am shocked."

The visa denial has led to insinuations that Chevron pressured Nigerian and U.S. governments against allowing the witnesses to travel here. Chevron vehemently denies this. But even without Chevron saying a word, it seems that this instance represents how corporate power has managed to reshape the way decisions are made and risks assessed regarding the importance of upholding important laws and human rights obligations through the courts.

The compromise: the judge has postponed the trial another month, and will let witnesses testify by video conference if they cannot obtain their visas by then. Lawyers for the villagers say this is no substitute for testifying in person.

This isn't the only instance in which oil companies have been accused of being involved in human rights violations in Nigeria. Yet another reason to ride that bike a little more often, huh?

Kia Franklin: Author Bio | Other Posts
Posted at 2:37 PM, Sep 04, 2008 in Human rights
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Comments

I wonder if the judge could not hold court at a port of entry where the foreign witnesses would not technically have been admitted to the United States and would be under the control of ICE, so that there would be no question of their remaining in the US. If that is what State is really concerned about, such a solution should satisfy it.

Posted by: Bill Poser | September 9, 2008 4:24 AM