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Chevron wins case involving Nigerian villagers

December 1, 2008 |  5:23 pm

Larry Bowoto, right, of Bowoto v. Chevron, hugs trial counselor Barbara Hadsell

A federal jury Monday cleared Chevron Corp. of responsibility in the killing and wounding of Nigerian villagers during a protest at an offshore oil platform a decade ago.

Plaintiffs said they will appeal, alleging error by the trial judge.

The villagers brought the lawsuit under the Alien Tort Claims Act, which allows foreigners to sue American companies in the United States for their actions in foreign countries.

The case arises from an incident 10 years ago at Chevron's Parabe oil platform nine miles off the Nigerian coast.

Members of the Ilaje ethnic group were upset by Chevron's actions in the Niger Delta, including oil spills and dredging that killed fish, contaminated the soil and fouled drinking water. They also were angered by a lack of jobs or other compensation and Chevron's apparent unwillingness to talk to them.

In May 1998, more than 100 Ilaje villagers boated out to the oil platform and occupied an adjoining barge. In an initial attempt to end the protest, a Chevron representative began negotiating with tribal elders onshore.

But from that point on, witnesses and experts called by the two sides offered sharply contrasting accounts of how events unfolded.

Witnesses for the plaintiffs said the protesters were unarmed and peaceful. They did not interfere with or threaten any of the workers at the facility, witnesses said, and a small armed military unit patrolled the facility without incident.

On the fourth day of the protest, they said, helicopters leased by Chevron and flown by Chevron pilots transported soldiers and members of the feared mobile police, known as "Kill and Go" units, to the facility.

Upon landing, the police and soldiers began firing almost immediately and shot four people, killing two. Lead plaintiff Larry Bowoto testified that he was holding up his hands and shouting, "Don't shoot," when he was shot in the elbow, side and buttock.

Photo: Bowoto embraces trial counselor Barbara Hadsell outside San Francisco's Federal Building.  Jeff Chiu/Associated Press.