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3 lawyers test human rights cases from abroad in Supreme Court

The Supreme Court will hear a case Monday which could determine whether cases involving foreign governments committing atrocities in their own countries should be heard in the US court system.

By Rebecca HamiltonReuters / September 30, 2012

Workers cover the US Supreme Court building in Washington Thursday, Sept. 27, with a protective scrim, as work continues on the facade.The Supreme Court is embarking on a new term beginning Monday that could be as consequential as the last one with the prospect a ruling on whether cases involving human rights abuses in foreign countries should be heard in the US.

Alex Brandon/AP


For more than three decades survivors of human rights abuses in foreign countries have turned to US federal courts to seek justice. On Monday the US Supreme Court hears a case that could make that impossible.

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The case pits a Nigerian widow against a multinational oil company. Esther Kiobel and others say Royal Dutch Petroleum (Shell) helped the Nigerian government commit human rights violations against her husband, who was executed in 1995. Shell has denied the allegations and argues that cases involving foreign governments committing atrocities in their own countries do not belong in the US court system at all.

That the justices are considering the sweeping question of whether an entire class of lawsuits can be heard in the United States can be traced to briefs filed by three lawyers whose clients aren't even involved in the case.

How their briefs came to be sheds light on one of the most closely watched cases before the Supreme Court this term and shows how the efforts of private lawyers pursuing a public policy goal can have momentous consequences.

A ruling against Kiobel could wipe out lawsuits pending against companies such as Exxon Mobil Corp, Rio Tinto Plc and Nestle, which are accused by private plaintiffs of helping governments violate human rights in Indonesia,Papua New Guinea and Ivory Coast, respectively.

Esther Kiobel's husband, Barinem Kiobel, was arrested in 1994 along with Nobel Peace Prize nominee Ken Saro-Wiwa and others. They had spoken out against the government's violent suppression of environmental activists who opposed Shell's oil and gas drilling in Nigeria. Kiobel was found guilty of murder by a Nigerian military court in a trial that the U.S. State Department said lacked due process, and he was hanged in Port Harcourt, Nigeria, in 1995.

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