"We believe Shell facilitated Saro-Wiwa's execution," said Jenny Green, a lawyer for the family at the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights. "We believe there is a basis in US law to hold Shell accountable."
Shell denies all wrongdoing and is appealing on a technicality to stop the lawsuit from being heard.
The New York District Court ruled in January that it had jurisdiction, but said the case would be better heard in London. Shell is contending in the Second Circuit Court of Appeals in New York that the US does not have jurisdiction for this case. Saro-Wiwa's family is cross-appealing that New York is a better venue than London. Oral arguments are scheduled for this autumn.
The existence of the lawsuit emerged last week as a result of demonstrations outside the annual general meeting of Premier Oil in London. Activists from The Burma Campaign UK and the World Development Movement want Premier to halt construction of a natural gas pipeline running from the Andaman Sea through Burma to Thailand.
Activists say the pipeline is being built with forced labour. Premier Oil denies this and says it has a policy of constructive engagement with Burmese authorities to stop human rights abuses by linking the local economy to the outside world.
US activists working along side the campaigners are suing Unocal, a US oil company also building a natural gas pipeline in Burma.
The Center for Constitutional Rights and EarthRights International say Unocal is responsible for the Burmese Army forcing locals to work on the pipeline.
Unocal denies this charge and is appealing a decision in a California court which says the US has jurisdiction to hear the case.
If successful, the legal initiatives against Shell and Unocal could have far-reaching implications. US human rights activists want to extend legal precedents established in the US to make multinationals financially liable for human rights abuses in the Third World.
Jenny Green at the Center for Constitutional Law claims that the Saro- Wiwa family and a second group of defendants from the writer's Ogoni tribe have affidavits in which Shell said to the Saro-Wiwa family, when Ken Saro-Wiwa was in custody: "If you call off the international campaign maybe there's something that can be done to help."