ExxonMobil issued rare penalty in ongoing Indonesian rights case | Corruption News

Medan, Indonesia – Even by the standards of a justice system known for its drama, the latest U.S. court ruling in a case pitting Indonesian villagers against one of the world’s most powerful oil companies is shocking. unusual, enough to surprise one.

John Doe versus ExxonMobil, which has dragged through the courts in the District of Columbia for two decades, took a significant turn after a judge ruled last week that the oil giant must pay $288,900.78 legal fees and costs for plaintiffs’ attorneys following a two-way demise. many years ago.

“Sanctions are a huge problem,” Michel Paradis, a human rights attorney and lecturer at Columbia Law School in New York, told Al Jazeera. “They are rare and often reflect the judge’s genuine frustration with the way a lawyer or party has acted.”

In 2020, Mark Snell, general counsel for the Asia Pacific region of ExxonMobil, “seriously, repeatedly and negatively hindered his own deposition” and refused to answer questions, wasting wasted time and gave inaccurate and evasive answers about whether he was reading his notes and who prepared them, according to court documents.

The suit was filed in the District Court for the District of Columbia in 2001 after accuses Indonesian villagers of human rights abuses, including sexual assault, torture, rape and wrongful death at and around the ExxonMobil Oil and Gas Plant in Lhoksukon, Aceh Province during the late 1990s and early 2000s.

Born out of the 1999 merger between Mobil Oil Indonesia and Exxon, the company generated more than $1 billion in annual revenue in the late 1990s when it contracted members of the Indonesian military to protect the based in Aceh at a cost of $500,000 per month. . At the time, Aceh was embroiled in a protracted civil war between the government and the Free Aceh Movement (GAM), a separatist group that demanded autonomy from the rest of the country.

The 11 plaintiffs in the case, some of whom are represented by their families, allege that soldiers contracted by ExxonMobil conducted raids aimed at killing suspected separatists, torture and murder innocent members of the local population in the process.

ExxonMobil has vehemently denied knowing of any abuses by contractors under its supervision.

‘Bump about the bush’

Andreas Harsono, a researcher at Human Rights Watch Indonesia, said the latest court ruling will make ExxonMobil stop “associating dust” and get involved in the essence of the case.

“Indonesian security forces have used Exxon company funds for military operations to quell dissent in Aceh and increase their ability to engage in repressive tactics against Acehnese militants. ,” Harsono told Al Jazeera.

An ExxonMobil spokesperson declined to comment on the latest developments.

Terry Collingsworth, who filed the lawsuit and is representing the plaintiffs, told Al Jazeera he could not comment “other than to confirm that this is a reward for the plaintiffs’ attorneys in terms of time and costs. in forcing Exxon to comply with its detection obligations.”

Some of the plaintiffs, who are named in the court documents as John and Jane Does to protect their identities, said they welcomed the sanctions and that it introduced a double standard around the deposits.

“I went public with my evidence and I told Exxon’s lawyers everything,” one plaintiff told Al Jazeera. “We have always answered all of their questions. We are just simple people, but I have become braver over the years and I am not afraid to stand up for my rights.”

Another plaintiff, who alleges that soldiers under contract with ExxonMobil attacked him with bayonets that left him scarred for life, said the alleged victims in the case were always better behaved than the other victims. the accused.

“I have fully answered all of their questions at the infrastructure,” he told Al Jazeera.

“We were the victims and we cooperated throughout the process. Exxon doesn’t want to be held accountable for what they did. We spoke to our on-site Exxon attorneys and told them everything about what had happened to us. How can they now say they don’t remember anything? ”

“For 20 years we’ve been saying the same things, We’ve been beaten and remedied and we have proof,” he added.

Free Aceh Movement
Aceh has seen clashes between the government and separatists from the 1980s to the early 2000s [File: Tarmizy Harva/Reuters]

Judge Royce Lamberth slapped ExxonMobil with a $288,999 fine after last year admonishing ExxonMonil’s attorney, Alex Oh, for describing her counter-advice as “unhelpful” and “inciting and warring.” as a result of Snell’s demotion.

Oh resigned to his new role as head of enforcement for the US Securities and Exchange Commission last April after less than a week on the job following a judge’s reprimand, in correspondence. The officer said she could not, “address this development without it becoming an unwanted distraction to the division’s vital work”.

“The latest penalty will not directly affect the outcome of the case,” said Paradis, an instructor at Columbia Law School.

“The good federal judges – and I will certainly include Royce Lamberth among these – have seen a lot and can improve. So you won’t see him ruling against Exxon recklessly,” Paradis said, however, noting that ExxonMobil may be less likely to get the benefit of the doubt in this case in the future. future.

“There’s no telling how that’s going to play out,” he said. “But the last thing you want as a litigator is to get to the point where the court can’t rely on what you say.”

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