The ruling clears the way for plaintiffs to interview Shell executives and examine company documents in pursuit of allegations the Anglo-Dutch corporation, through its subsidiary Shell Nigeria, was involved in the torture and murder of Ken Saro-Wiwa and other activists with the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (Mosop), who opposed oil drilling on their lands.
Shell has consistently denied the charges against it and sought to have the lawsuit dismissed. Judge Kimba Wood refused in a ruling written Feb 28 and subsequently delivered to the parties.
''This ruling means that the families of Ken Saro-Wiwa and his Ogoni colleagues may yet get some measure of justice for the unlawful executions and other abuses in which Shell was complicit,'' said Richard Herz, an attorney with EarthRights International, a non-governmental organisation co-representing the plaintiffs.
The ruling ''sends a strong message to other multinational companies that they cannot participate in egregious human rights abuses with impunity,'' he added.
Washington-based EarthRights first filed the suit in 1996 with the New York-based Centre for Constitutional Rights on behalf of family members of those tortured or killed.
Plaintiffs argued the company gave money and weapons to the Nigerian government to crush the protest movement.
They further accused the military regime of bribing witnesses to give false testimony against Saro-Wiwa and John Kpuinen, who were hanged with seven other Ogoni activists by the Nigerian military in 1995.
The suit further said Owens Wiwa, Ken Saro-Wiwa's brother, had been tortured and detained, and a woman had been shot by Nigerian troops called in by Shell while peacefully protesting the bulldozing of her crops, which lay along the planned route of a company pipeline.
''By involving themselves directly in Shell Nigeria's anti-Mosop activities, and by directing these activities, defendants made Shell Nigeria their agent with respect to the torts alleged in the complaint,'' Wood wrote in her ruling.
The Judge said the plaintiffs' allegations met the requirements for claims under the Alien Tort Claims Act, which allows foreign citizens to sue companies with representation in the United States in US courts over violations of international law.
The ruling states that, if proven, the actions that Royal Dutch/Shell and Brian Anderson, the former head of Shell Nigeria, are alleged to have committed constitute participation in crimes against humanity, torture, summary execution, arbitrary detention, cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment, and other violations of international law.
The company denies any wrongdoing.
Wood further stated that Anderson could be sued under the Torture Victim Protection Act, which allows victims of torture to sue the perpetrators in federal court.
The plaintiffs' claims under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organisations (Rico) Act also could proceed, said Wood, because Royal Dutch/Shell's alleged actions in concert with the Nigerian military satisfied the racketeering requirements of the act, and because the company allegedly engaged in these acts in part to facilitate the export of cheap oil to the United States.
The 1995 executions of the nine Ogoni activists, which followed a military trial, touched off an international outcry against Nigeria. Human rights and environmental activists believed Saro-Wiwa was executed because of his grassroots campaign directed against Shell.
The company has repeatedly denied any responsibility for Saro-Wiwa's death, saying it made a last-minute plea for clemency. Shell also said it spoke against the use of violence and unfair trials.
More than 30 years of oil exploration in the region has polluted drinking water and caused fish to disappear from the rivers, according to Mosop. Crops cannot grow on large stretches of now-infertile land, and wildlife and vegetation have been disappearing, says the group.
Because of oil extraction, the Niger delta — home to coastal rainforest and mangrove habitats — is the most endangered river delta in the world, according to the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development.
The Alien Tort Claims Act dates back to the 1700s. It has been used to sue US companies for alleged involvement or complicity in Nazi atrocities during World War II.
More recent cases using the Act — including action against Texaco by indigenous communities in the Amazon and a suit against ExxonMobil by a labour rights group for its activities in Indonesia — have stalled for years in the federal courts.
With the latest court decision, however, plaintiffs against Royal Dutch/Shell said they were optimistic that companies that do business in the United States would eventually be made to answer for their actions in US courts.
The case now proceeds to the discovery phase, in which plaintiffs will have the opportunity to interview Anderson and other Shell employees, and to review company documents. (IPS)