After 20 years, ExxonMobil’s Indonesian accusers emerge in court | Energy news
Medan, Indonesia – John Doe still remembers the time his alleged torturers tricked him into believing he would never see his family again.
It was in 2000 in Aceh province, Indonesia, following his alleged capture by members of the Indonesian military working at the nearby ExxonMobil gas plant.
“They tied me up in a crucifix position and electrocuted me,” Doe, who uses a pseudonym to protect his identity, told Al Jazeera. “I kept praying to God in my heart. I thought, ‘I’m going to die today.’ »
“People who were captured by Exxon’s army rarely returned home,” he added.
John Doe’s heartbreaking testimony is part of a civil lawsuit that could finally go to trial this year after languishing more than two decades in the clogged US legal system.
Originally filed in 2001 in District Court for the District of Columbia, John Doe v ExxonMobil alleges the oil and gas giant was responsible for a litany of human rights abuses at its Aceh factory in the early 2000s , including assault and battery, sexual assault, rape. and wrongful deaths.
“I filed our human rights complaint against ExxonMobil in 2001 for its use of a brutal private army to protect its natural gas liquefaction facilities in Aceh, Indonesia,” the lawyers said. human rights Terry Collingsworth at Al Jazeera.
“Exxon soldiers killed and tortured my clients and many others, all innocent civilians who lived near Exxon facilities.”
Aceh province is home to vast deposits of oil and natural gas as well as timber and other minerals, and the province produces about a third of Indonesia’s liquefied natural gas.
Mobil Oil Indonesia, which was acquired by Exxon in 1999 to become ExxonMobil Corporation, first moved to the region in the early 1970s after discovering natural gas deposits near the city of Lhoksukon. By the late 1990s, the company was generating over $1 billion in annual revenue.
At the same time, Aceh was in the throes of a 20-year civil war between the national government and the separatist Free Aceh Movement (GAM). From the 1980s to the early 2000s, the Indonesian military regularly clashed with separatists, prompting ExxonMobil to hire Indonesian soldiers to protect its personnel and operations at its facilities.
In 2000, ExxonMobil was paying more than $500,000 a month to retain members of the Indonesian military as security personnel, according to court documents.
The 11 plaintiffs in John Doe v ExxonMobil allege the soldiers did more than just protect ExxonMobil’s interests, and instead carried out regular raids in which they rounded up villagers and tortured them into admitting they were separatists, sometimes even bringing them onto ExxonMobil property to conduct violent interrogations.
“If I get hit by an ExxonMobil truck driver, I can sue ExxonMobil, not the truck driver,” said Michel Paradis, a human rights lawyer and lecturer at Columbia Law School in New York at Al Jazeera.
“The two key points in this case are accountability and predictability. Plaintiffs will have to demonstrate that it was more likely than not that the individuals in question worked for ExxonMobil and that it was more likely than not that ExxonMobil knew or should have known of the risks posed by military personnel in that particular area. for civilians. population,” added Paradis, who is not involved in the case.
In court documents, ExxonMobil claimed it was not aware of any human rights abuses at the time and cannot be held responsible for the abuses that occurred because it did not order them or authorized.
“We have fought these baseless claims for many years,” ExxonMobil spokesman Todd Spitler told Al Jazeera. “The plaintiff’s claims are baseless. While operating in Indonesia, ExxonMobil has worked for generations to improve the quality of life in Aceh through the employment of local workers, the provision of health services and significant community investments. The company strongly condemns human rights violations in all their forms.
“Scorched Earth Approach”
Since the case was filed in June 2001, ExxonMobil lawyers have tried nine times to have it thrown out.
“It highlights what is now another very important focus of the case,” Collingsworth said. “Exxon’s attorneys used a scorched earth approach designed to delay the case and make it as costly as possible for us to obtain justice for our clients.”
At various points in the trial, ExxonMobil sought to cast doubt on the veracity of the plaintiffs’ allegations, even going so far as to accuse their attorney of bribing them with gifts in order to get them to testify.
“If we mention, why would we continue for 20 years? one of the complainants told Al Jazeera, speaking on condition of anonymity. “This needs to be resolved. Even if I die, my children and grandchildren will continue to carry this with them.
The plaintiff alleges that he was kidnapped by soldiers working for ExxonMobil and tortured for three months. At one point during his interrogation, he said, he was blindfolded and made to touch a mound of severed heads that his captors said belonged to executed separatists.
The plaintiffs’ legal team filed over 300 pages of factual findings, 400 exhibits and five expert reports in hopes of convincing the presiding judge that the case should go to trial. They hope a trial date could be set as early as this spring.
“This case, now entering its 21st year, must also serve as a strong example that companies like Exxon cannot use their unlimited resources to evade justice,” Collingsworth said.
Collingsworth added that ExxonMobil should have accepted responsibility from the start, rather than spending millions of dollars to avoid helping injured families.
“We can only hope that our case will inspire justice reforms to prevent other multinationals from abusing the system to delay justice,” he said.
Over the years, similar cases have been thrown out of court, such as Kiobel v Royal Dutch Petroleum, which was decided in 2013.
The Nigerian plaintiffs had claimed that Dutch, British and Nigerian oil companies were responsible for extrajudicial killings, crimes against humanity and torture after the Nigerian government carried out a brutal crackdown on local communities resisting oil development in Ogoni country in the Niger delta.
“Companies, as a rule, are loath to admit responsibility, even if it’s painfully obvious,” Paradis said. “Even when they pay fines to the government, for example, they always make sure that they do not admit any responsibility. There’s just a culture of it. It’s not about money, there are deeper cultural drivers there.
Still, despite the delays and lack of legal precedent, Paradis said he was optimistic about the chances of the alleged victims in John Doe v. ExxonMobil, considering the case had managed to survive for so long.
“I think the plaintiffs have a pretty simple and sympathetic case to tell,” he said.
“If they go to trial, I think Exxon should be worried.”