A Dutch court said on Wednesday it has jurisdiction to hear a damages suit brought against Royal Dutch Shell by four widows of activists executed by the Nigerian government in 1995.
In a preliminary decision, judges at the Hague District Court said they would allow the suit to go forward, a rare win in a decades-long legal fight, though the claimants must still prove Shell’s liability. Shell denies wrongdoing.
“This procedure will continue,” said presiding judge Larissa Alwin, reading the decision of a three-judge panel.
The men executed were among a group that became known as the “Ogoni Nine” – activists who included writer Ken Saro-Wiwa.
The group had protested against Shell’s exploitation of the Niger Delta. Its nine members were arrested and hanged after a flawed trial that turned international opinion against Nigeria’s then-military rulers.
Alwin ordered Shell to turn over documents that could help the claimants’ case, specifically any evidence that Shell paid people to give false information about the activists to Nigerian law-enforcement officials.
Dutch courts do not award large punitive damages claims, though the case has the potential to embarrass Shell and provide a measure of comfort for the activists’ families if it finds the company bears responsibility in their deaths.
“I am glad that the court has found it has jurisdiction,” lead plaintiff Esther Kiobel, whose husband Barinem Kiobel was among those executed, said outside the courtroom.
“My husband was killed like a criminal. I want him to be exonerated.”
Shell, headquartered in the Hague, paid $15.5 million to one group of activists’ families, including the Saro-Wiwa estate, in the United States in a 2009 settlement in which Shell also denied any responsibility or wrongdoing.
A second group led by Kiobel fought on in the United States until the U.S. Supreme Court rejected jurisdiction in 2013. Backed by Amnesty International, Kiobel and three other widows have continued legal action in Britain and the Netherlands.
“We’re not doing this to settle, we’re seeking to hold Shell to account,” Amnesty’s Mark Dummett said after the ruling, which he described as a “mixed decision”.