Copyright: Sophia EvansIn May 1998, 121 unarmed youths from the 42 communities of Ilajeland in the Niger Delta decided to join the waves of protests against the oil companies sweeping the region.

Whereas many of the previous protests had been against Shell, the oil company operating in their area was Chevron. They got into boats and canoes and set off to occupy Chevron’s Parebe platform that was miles off-shore.

Their demands were modest according to one of the leading activists in the Niger Delta. “Don’t pollute my water don’t destroy our mangrove forest, don’t devastate our ecology. Come and listen to us come and talk to our elders” .

What happened next has been subject to fierce controversy ever since, but after the youths boarded a barge it led to a stand-off for four days. Then one morning, flying low in the African sky, three helicopters arrived being flown by Chevron pilots, but full of the Nigerian Military, Navy and the Mobile Police Force. In the ensuing chaos, four youths were killed, 30 more youths were wounded, most with gunshot. Those that went to help the dying were shot too.

It later transpired that Chevron had specifically called for the Mobile Police. According to Human Rights Watch, no attempt had been made by Chevron “to prevent abusive actions by the security forces in advance of the confrontation.  Nor did it state that concern had been expressed to the authorities over the incident or that any steps would be taken to avoid similar incidents in future.” One of the helicopters had a Chevron security person on board who “apparently did nothing” to stop the shooting.  In the eyes of the communities, another company now had blood on its hands.

The events on that fateful day have now ended up a decade later in a court-room in San Francisco, with 19 Nigerians seeking unspecified compensatory damages for medical care, loss of wages and pain and suffering for the victims and families of the deceased and wounded.

After a four-week trial, in its closing arguments, Chevron denied directing the Nigerian soldiers and said it had acted in self defence.

“The decision to shoot in self-defense was made by the military,” Robert Mittelstaedt, an attorney for Chevron, said in closing arguments. “Not only did we not think anything wrong would happen, we certainly didn’t intend for anything to happen.”

But lawyers acting for the Nigerians showed evidence at the trial that Chevron knew that the Nigerian military and the Mobile Police, nicknamed “Kill and Go,” to be “uncontrollable” and prone to violence.  “The Kill and Go were among the most vicious military operations in the world,” said Dan Stormer, an attorney for the Nigerians. “Chevron paid, fed, housed and maintained the military, including the Kill and Go, to have security in Nigeria.”

Stormer added: “They don’t want to be held accountable now but you, through our system of justice, get to hold them accountable.”  The jury can award punitive damages against Chevron for recklessness.

A verdict against Chevron would be the first against a U.S. corporation for actions abroad under a law, passed by the first Congress in 1789, that allows foreigners to seek damages for violations of international human rights.

In making their decision, the jury should remember that justice begins at home…..