Shell settles Nigerian human rights abuses lawsuit for $15.5m

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The son of Ken Saro-Wiwa, the social activist and poet who was executed by a former military regime in Nigeria, claimed victory against Royal Dutch Shell last night after the company agreed to pay $15.5m (£9.7m) to settle a lawsuit he and others had filed against it in a New York court.

"I think he would be happy with this," Ken Saro-Wiwa Jr said after terms of the settlement were made public, even though the amount involved amounts to a tiny fraction of Shell's annual profits and the company insisted that, by making such a payment, it was not admitting to any wrongdoing.

The company, which has run lucrative oil-exploitation operations in Nigeria since the 1950s, was facing a potentially difficult trial arising from the lawsuit filed by Mr Saro-Wiwa Jr and the relatives of five other civilians hanged by the then government in 1995.

The suit accused Shell, its Nigerian subsidiary and a former head of operations of colluding with the authorities to thwart Ogoni tribesmen trying to expose alleged human rights and environmental abuses by the company. It asserted that the multi-national supplied the authorities with weapons and asked police to shoot protesting villagers.

Shell said last night it had settled to begin a "process of reconciliation" in the area of southern Nigeria where its operations and the Ogonis coincide. "This gesture also acknowledges that, even though Shell had no part in the violence that took place, the plaintiffs and others have suffered," Malcolm Brinded, Shell's head of exploration and production, added in a statement.

The trial had originally been slated to begin in mid-May but was delayed pending additional pre-trial hearings and rumours of a settlement had been growing in recent days. The outcome was being celebrated by lawyers for the plaintiffs. "Throughout this very long process I have been humbled by our clients' unwavering courage and resilience," said Anthony DiCaprio.

At least one other trial with Shell as the defendant is pending in the New York courts, however. "This settlement is only a first step towards the resolution of still outstanding issues between Shell and the Ogoni people," noted Paul Hoffman, a co-counsel for the plaintiffs in the case.