The husbands of Victoria Bera (L) and Esther Kiobel (R), were executed in 1995 / © ANP/AFP
The widows of four Nigerian activists executed by the military regime in the 1990s launched a court case in the Netherlands Tuesday against oil giant Shell for complicity in their deaths.
Esther Kiobel, whose husband Barinem was hanged in 1995 along with famed writer Ken Saro-Wiwa and seven others, said the "horrible" experience had left her "traumatised".
The widows allege that Anglo-Dutch Shell helped in the arrest of the men, who had sought to peacefully disrupt the oil giant's work in Nigeria's Ogoni region because of health and environmental impacts.
Shell said it was "inconceivable" that it could have been involved in the death of the men.
Kiobel and one of the other widows, Victoria Bera, were in court in The Hague for opening arguments in the case against Shell, while the other two women whose husbands were killed were denied visas to attend.
Members of the Ogoni community carrying a poster of Ken Saro-Wiwa marched in Port Harcourt to remember the civil rights activist on the 10th anniversary of his 1995 execution / © AFP/File
"My husband had a good heart. Now I am a poor widow who has lost everything," Kiobel was quoted as telling the court in The Hague by Dutch news agency ANP.
"The abuses that my family and I went through were a horrible experience that has traumatised us to this day," added Kiobel, who fled Nigeria in 1998 and now lives in the United States.
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."
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.
- 'Brazen self-interest' -
Saro-Wiwa, president and founder of the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP), and eight fellow activists were executed on November 10, 1995 after a military tribunal convicted them of the murder of four traditional Ogoni chiefs.
The men denied the charges and human rights groups slammed the trial as a sham.
The widows' case is being backed by rights group Amnesty International.
"These women believe that their husbands would still be alive today were it not for the brazen self-interest of Shell, which encouraged the Nigerian government's bloody crackdown on protesters even when it knew the human cost," Amnesty's Mark Dummett said.
In 2009 Shell agreed to a $15.5 million payout in the United States to settle a lawsuit brought by relatives of Saro-Wiwa that alleged complicity in abuses by Nigeria, without acknowledging responsibility / © AFP/File
Shell denied all involvement in the men's executions, saying it was "inconceivable" that it would have interfered in a criminal trial in a foreign country.
"We are not blind to the terrible and radical loss that the women have suffered," a lawyer for the firm said. "But Shell is not responsible for these events."
The lawyer added that the Dutch court did not have jurisdiction over the matter.
Shell said in a separate statement that it had asked the Nigerian presidency for leniency for the men and "we regret that no response was given".
"The executions carried out by a military government at that time have deeply affected us," a spokesman for the Shell Petroleum Development Company of Nigeria Limited said.
The Ogoni movement was set up in 1990 to fight against pollution and the destruction of the ecosystem of the 500,000-strong Ogoni community, which lives on an oil-rich parcel of land on the northern edge of the Niger Delta.
The executions provoked a global outcry and led to the suspension of Nigeria from the Commonwealth. The west African country was readmitted with the return of civilian rule in 1999.
In 2009 Shell agreed to a $15.5 million payout in the United States to settle a lawsuit brought by relatives of Saro-Wiwa that alleged complicity in abuses by Nigeria, without acknowledging responsibility.