BP accused on death threats

MEP says bodyguard of company executive threatened to `skin' Colombian protester
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Bodyguards of a senior BP executive in Colombia threatened to ``skin alive'' a protester campaigning against the company, an MEP claims.

Richard Howitt, Labour MEP for Essex South, says the Colombian army and paramilitary groups have oppressed people who have protested about BP's operations. There have been death threats and assassinations. After interviewing and tape-recording community leaders and pressure-group representatives during a visit to the oilfield region of Casanare, he is demanding BP review its relationship with the Colombian army. ``I believe BP managers must know or should know about human-rights violations carried out in the company's name, and with what appears to me to be the direct collusion of some of their staff,'' he said.

The company rejects this, and says if it found any evidence of staff or contractors involved in illegal acts it would dismiss them and pass the information to the Colombian prosecutor- general. What Mr Howitt and BP can agree on is that it is working in a dangerous and complex social and political environment in Casanare, in the foothills of the Andes north- east of Bogota.

The discovery of oil in the late 1980s attracted many poor people and two rival guerrilla groups who use kidnapping, extortion and drug dealing to finance their campaign against the government.

The army has come in to guard installations. Reports from rights organisations including Amnesty condemned the army for arbitrary arrests, beatings and killings of suspected guerrilla sympathisers.

The army has also had links with covert right-wing paramilitary groups which use death threats and assassinations in their undercover war with the guerrillas.

BP, which has invested pounds 1.3bn exploiting Colombian oil, makes payments to the Colombian Ministry of Defence to provide boots, uniforms, food and shelter for the local soldiers. The company said 17 of its contractors had been killed by guerrillas. BP also hires a UK firm, Defence Systems Ltd, to help with security in Colombia.

BP and its local contractors have faced strikes, protests and blockades from local people in recent years, including a strike by security guards.

The main grievances have been that communities have not received enough of the new oil wealth, local people have not been given a fair share of the new jobs, contractors are paying unfairly low wages and the environment has been damaged. Some strikes have ended in violent clashes. The judicial authorities are investigating the killings of four agitators in a town, El Morro, two years ago.

Mr Howitt visited Colombia as part of a parliamentary delegation in autumn and alleged BP had an improper relationship with an army which carried out illegal actions.

Challenged by BP to visit the Casanare region, he did so this month, and returned with tapedtestimony which, he says, vindicates his claim. In one testimony a labourer with a BP contractor says three guards of Phil Mead, a BP associate vice- president and its most senior manager in Casanare, threatened him outside a meeting called in protest at the lack of employment. There is no suggestion that Mr Mead personally knew of the incident.

``They started telling me bad words ... that I should stop fucking around, otherwise they would skin me alive,'' reads the translation.

Asked if the threats were made by Mr Mead's guards, the man said: ``It is true that they were security guards of Phil Mead. He is a good person. I have spoken to him. The bad thing is the Colombian people who surround these people.'' The threats, he said, were repeated by men in a car which he knew to be hired by BP security staff. In another testimony, a former council worker said that at an angry meeting at an oil well where local people were demanding work a BP community affairs officer telephoned the company's Central Production Facility. ``About an hour later the army came in. They had helicopters ...they saw about 50 people and realised we weren't armed. I am a witness where a BP person calls another BP person calling for the army to intervene. They said there were 50 guerrillas wanting to take over the well."

Mr Howitt said he would not name his witnesses because it would endanger their lives. ``I've found there is a pattern. If you speak out against BP you can be roughed up, then be denounced as a guerrilla. And once you're denounced then the paramilitaries can threaten you or even kill you. I listened to these people and I believe they are innocent of any link with the guerrillas. They don't want to be involved in violence and they live in fear." He said that on his visit "We were constantly watched by the army; stopped at several roadblocks. I was ordered out of a car and shoved up against it. I don't think BP should leave Colombia; it's not the company which has made it a violent society. But they have to achieve the same standards for human rights as they would anywhere else.''

BP said its policy was to "operate strictly within the law in Colombia, refusing to pay extortion money to guerrillas and relying on the protection of the police and army."

The company had found evidence that two of its contractors had links with the guerrillas, and had stopped using them. ``We have behaved in what we think is an exemplary fashion in difficult circumstances,'' said a spokesman. ``If anyone has evidence to the contrary, bring it to us and we will take it to the prosecutor- general of Colombia.''