Civil Suit | Civil War

There’s soon to be a new skirmish in the bloody civil war in Sudan: it will happen in a courtroom, in New York City, in the United States of America.

One of the chief combatants there will be Talisman Energy of Calgary, Alberta. The oil giant is named as codefendant in a class-action complaint originally filed on November 8, 2001. The other defendant is the Republic of Sudan itself.

The Presbyterian Church of Sudan and Nuer Community Development Services in U.S.A., a group of Sudanese refugees, filed the suit. Carey D’Avino — a Manhattan lawyer who played a role in recent Holocaust-related slave-labour cases — is spearheading the legal action.

D’Avino says Talisman, a New York Stock Exchange company, “cannot be allowed to profit from its partnership with a morally corrupt government.”

He charges that Talisman is in an “unholy alliance” with the National Islamic Front government of Sudan, and that it knowingly took part in the government’s campaign of “ethnic cleansing.” All this was done, he contends, to create a safe zone in the southern part of the African country, where Talisman operates.

Court documents can sometimes be dry and dense. Not this one. It begins:

This is a class action brought by Plaintiffs on behalf of themselves and other similarly situated non-Muslims, African residents of southern Sudan who have been, and are being, damaged by extrajudicial killing (including murder and summary execution), forced displacement, military bombings and assaults on civilian targets, confiscation and destruction of property, kidnappings, rape and slavery, related to or arising from the oil exploration and extraction activities of Defendants Talisman Energy, Inc. (“Talisman”) and the Republic of the Sudan (“Sudan” or the “Government”).

It gets messier:

Defendants have collaborated in a joint strategy to deploy military forces in a brutal ethnic cleansing campaign against a civilian population based on their ethnicity and/or religion for the purpose of enhancing Defendants’ ability to explore and extract oil from areas of southern Sudan by creating a cordon sanitaire surrounding the oil concessions located there. The armed campaign, which is ongoing and has resulted in massive civilian displacement, the burning of villages, churches and crops, and the extrajudicial killing and enslavement of innocent civilians, is possible only through Defendants’ collaboration and the Government’s utilization of infrastructure, such as roads and airfields, constructed and maintained by Talisman.

In other words, it accuses Talisman of working with the government of Sudan while the latter committed atrocities. And both the company and the government profited as a result.

The civil suit was amended late last month to include new allegations. D’Avino claims to have a memo dated May 7, 1999, from the Petroleum Security’s central office in Khartoum to its office in Heglig, Sudan. He says the directive — written in Arabic and marked “very urgent” — says, in part, “In accordance with directives of His Excellency the Minister of Energy and Mining and fulfilling the request of the Canadian Company ... the armed forces will conduct cleaning-up operations in all villages from Heglig to Pariang.”

Talisman was contacted for a reaction to the alleged secret police communiqué of an incipient attack on villages near Talisman’s oil fields. Barry Nelson, a communications officer, described the document as “absolute hearsay.” He said the statements in the court papers are “entirely false and defamatory.”

Nelson then asked for the spelling of this reporter’s name and the address of the radio station where I work, so he could send a letter. “I just want to show you,” he said, “what will happen if you report those statements.” The letter arrived, cc'd to the head of my radio station. Libel chill, anyone?

Perhaps the term “cleaning up” was in reference to an oil spill in one of the villages, one might say. Well, that could be. But the American Anti-Slavery Group (AASG) doesn’t think so. Charles Jacobs, who heads up the Boston-based organization, says that just two days later, a major offensive was launched; villages from Heglig to Pariang were destroyed. D’Avino points out that people died in those villages.

“A Canadian Foreign Ministry Report [the Harker Report] described how civilians were killed, homes and whole villages destroyed, food stocks looted or burned, humanitarian aid forced into flight,” Jacobs says. “It is estimated the attacks reduced the overall population in the country by 50 per cent — all so that oil could be more easily extracted.”

Talisman denies this. At the company’s annual shareholders’ meeting in Calgary last year, CEO Jim Buckee said there was no evidence of any forced displacement in any of Talisman’s concessions.

Mel Middleton, a retired foreign-aid worker who spent ten years in Sudan, says, “If such outrageous denials were made by the state-owned oil companies of China or Malaysia, or some other human-rights abusing country, few people would take them seriously. But because they are made by a Canadian company — Canada’s largest independent oil and gas producer at that — shareholders, government officials and the international community regard them as authoritative and reliable.”

Middleton says Talisman is being used as “moral cover” by a brutal dictatorship. He recalls his meeting with senior Talisman officials in the 1990s, when he pleaded with them not to work in Sudan. He says the response from Talisman was, “If you’re asking us not to go in, we have nothing to talk about.”

It’s not known when the civil suit will go to trial. D’Avino — who is also on the board of the AASG — says the company asked for an extension,and it was pushed ahead to April 10, when the company will argue to have the case thrown out. Talisman also asked for an indefinite extension, but the judge refused.

Whenever the case finally goes to court, it will be a jury — not Talisman executives and investors, reporters or government officials — that gets to decide if Sudan’s police moved into those villages to clean up an oil spill.

Byron Christopher is a senior radio journalist in Edmonton. His last article for rabble.ca was “The ABCs of Unbiased News Coverage” (November 12, 2001). You can reach him at abchris@oanet.com.

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