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State Dept. Suggests Dropping Charges Against Exxon Mobil

By Sonni Efron
LOS ANGELES TIMES -- WASHINGTON

The State Department has asked a federal court to dismiss a human rights lawsuit by Indonesian villagers against Exxon Mobil, saying a trial could harm U.S. economic and political interests in Asia, including the struggle against terrorism.

Villagers allege that Indonesian soldiers protecting an Exxon plant in the strife-torn province of Aceh tortured and murdered innocent civilians. Exxon said it was not involved in any wrongdoing.

Human rights advocates said the U.S. government’s request could set a dangerous precedent. They said it allows the war on terrorism to be used to excuse human rights abuses and enable a corporation to avoid being held accountable for labor violations overseas.

“It’s a blatant misuse of the war on terrorism to suppress efforts to promote human rights,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch.

Both President Bush and Secretary of State Colin L. Powell have made a point of stressing -- sometimes to the discomfort of foreign leaders -- that the war on terrorism should not be used to justify suppression of legitimate dissent.

But the Exxon Mobil case raises exactly the kind of sticky political, economic and image problems that the Bush administration faces as it pursues anti-terrorist alliances around the world.

The lawsuit was filed by the International Labor Rights Fund, an American nonprofit group, on behalf of 11 Indonesian villagers in the separatist province of Aceh.

The villagers allege that the Indonesian military units that provide security for the plant that Exxon Mobil operates in a joint venture with the Indonesian government committed rapes, torture, murder and kidnappings from 1999 to 2001, while the oil giant turned a blind eye.

In some cases, the security forces took villagers inside the Exxon facility where they were tortured, said Bama Arthreya, deputy director of the labor group.

Arthreya said some of the troops had been redeployed from East Timor, where the Indonesian military is accused of orchestrating a bloody campaign against independence.

“We have heard numerous complaints of a scorched earth campaign they are carrying out” in Aceh, she said.

A spokeswoman for Exxon Mobil, Trisha Perkins, said that “the allegations are without merit as far as our company is concerned” and that the company “condemns human rights violations in any form, anywhere in the world.”

The lawsuit alleges that Exxon Mobil provided financial and material support to the security forces and is thus liable for their actions. The claim is based on two U.S. laws, the 1998 Torture Victims’ Protection Act and the Alien Tort Act, a 1789 statute that has been used by human rights lawyers for the past six years to allow foreigners to sue for redress in U.S. federal courts.

In May, U.S. District Judge Louis P. Oberdorfer in Washington asked the State Department to comment on whether allowing the case to go forward would harm U.S. interests. On July 29, State Department legal adviser William H. Taft sent a six-page reply saying the U.S. condemns human rights abuses by elements of the Indonesian army in locations such as Aceh, but arguing that a trial could antagonize a mostly Muslim nation of 210 million that is a focal point in the U.S. struggle against al-Qaida and other terrorist organizations.

The Indonesian government would likely resent the perceived infringement on its sovereignty and curtail cooperation with the United States on military, police and judicial reforms aimed at ending human rights abuses, the government’s brief said.

The case might also discourage foreign investment, hinder Indonesia’s economic recovery, and thus destabilize the country and the region, the brief said. It also hinted that foreign business competitors might move in on the lucrative Indonesian oil and gas industry with even worse implications for local workers.

It is unclear how much influence the State Department’s opinion will have on the case. The International Labor Rights Fund has a half a dozen other lawsuits pending in which U.S. corporations are being sued by third-world workers for alleged labor and human rights violations, and fears a dismissal of the Exxon case could set a precedent.