The widow of a Nigerian activist suing oil giant Shell over the execution of her husband says his death left her “traumatised” and “poverty-stricken”.
Esther Kiobel is testifying in court at The Hague, demanding compensation from the Netherlands-based firm.
She is among four women who accuse Shell of being complicit in the hanging of their husbands by Nigeria’s military on November 10, 1995. Shell denies the allegation.
The activists led mass protests against oil pollution in Nigeria’s Ogoniland.
The protests were seen as a major threat to then-military ruler Gen Sani Abacha, and Shell. They were led by author Ken Saro-Wiwa, who was among nine activists hanged by the military regime.
Their executions caused global outrage, and led to Nigeria’s suspension from the Commonwealth for more than three years.
Two of the widows were in court, but two others were denied visas to attend.
More than two decades later, memories of the executions still move the widows to tears, reports the BBC’s Anna Holligan from court.
Mrs Kiobel, who fled Nigeria in 1998 and now lives in the United States, wiped her eyes, and in a quivering voice described her husband, Barinem Kiobel, as “kind-hearted”.
Representatives of Shell looked on. At one point, the phone of one them rang as the widows wiped their eyes, prompting judges to remind everyone to keep their devices on silent.
What else did Kiobel say?
In a written statement, she said she had lost a “wonderful husband” and a “best friend”.
She added: “Shell came into my life to take the best crown l ever wore off my head. Shell came into my life to make me a poverty-stricken widow with all my businesses shut down. Shell came into my life to make me a refugee living in harsh conditions before l came to the United States through [a] refugee programme and now [I am a] citizen.
“The abuses my family and l went through are such an awful experience that has left us traumatised to date without help. We all have lived with so much pain and agony, but rather than giving up, the thought of how ruthlessly my husband was killed… has spurred me to remain resilient in my fight for justice.
“Nigeria and Shell killed my late husband: Dr Barinem Kiobel and his compatriots Kenule Tua Saro Wiwa, John Kpuinen, Baribor Bera, Paul Levula, Nordu Eawo and the rest [of the] innocent souls.
“My husband and the rest were killed… The memory of the physical torture my family and l went through has remained fresh in my mind, and whenever l look at the scar of the injury l sustained during the incident, my heart races for justice all the more.
“My husband had a good heart. Now I am a poor widow who has lost everything.
“The abuses that my family and I went through were a horrible experience that has traumatised us to this day”.
Kiobel added: “We need justice, it’s not about the money… I have been fighting for my murdered husband for 22 years now, so he can be acquitted of a crime he never committed.”
What is Shell’s response?
In a statement, the firm said the executions were “tragic events which shocked us deeply”.
The statement added: “The Shell Group, alongside other organisations and individuals, appealed for clemency to the military government in power in Nigeria at that time. To our deep regret, those appeals went unheard.
“We have always denied, in the strongest possible terms, the allegations made in this tragic case. SPDC [the Shell Petroleum Development Company] did not collude with the authorities to suppress community unrest, it in no way encouraged or advocated any act of violence in Nigeria, and it had no role in the arrest, trial and execution of these men.
“We believe that the evidence clearly shows that Shell was not responsible for these distressing events.”
Why were the activists hanged?
Saro-Wiwa and the eight other activists were executed after a secret trial in which they were convicted of murdering four Ogoni traditional leaders.
They denied the charge, and said they were framed.
Then-UK Prime Minister John Major described the trial as “fraudulent”, and said it had led to “judicial murder”.
At his trial, Saro-Wiwa said the case was designed to prevent the Ogoni people from fighting against oil pollution which had devastated the region’s environment and had caused poverty and disease.
Saro-Wiwa had co-founded the Movement for the Survival of Ogoni People (Mosop) in 1990, launching mass campaigns to win compensation for environmental damage and to demand that the region be given a fair share of oil profits.
What did the other widow say?
In her statement to the court, Victoria Bera, said she was pregnant with her first child when her husband, Baribor Bera, was arrested by the military.
She said: “The detention and subsequent execution of my husband made things very difficult for the entire family, including other relatives who depended on his financial support.
“The pain I’ve been living in these years doesn’t seem to go away, no matter what I do, especially when l look at my son, who had to grow up without a father…
“I need justice. I need justice for my people.”
Bera, who now lives in Canada, said her husband was guilty of nothing except protesting against Shell.
“We wanted a fair share of the profit, but we got nothing, no light or water yet. Shell and Nigeria took the oil and we got nothing,” she said.