- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 9, 2006

JAKARTA, Indonesia — Exxon Mobil Corp. said yesterday it will appeal the ruling by a U.S. judge allowing villagers to sue the oil giant for reputed abuses by Indonesian troops at facilities it operated in Aceh province.

The decision last week by U.S. District Judge Louis Oberdorfer was welcomed by human rights groups, but Exxon said it could set a precedent of companies abroad being held “vicariously liable” for actions by the government of the host country.

The International Labor Rights Fund, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group, filed suit in 2001 on behalf of 11 unnamed villagers in Aceh, on the northern part of the island of Sumatra, accusing Exxon’s Indonesian subsidiary of allowing its facilities to be used by soldiers to torture and rape Acehnese villagers.

Hearings were postponed in 2002 after the State Department said the case could have “a potentially serious adverse impact on significant interests of the United States.”

“Exxon Mobil condemns human rights violations in any form,” company spokeswoman Susan Reeves said. “Exxon Mobil is appealing the decision.” She did not elaborate on the timing or details of the appeal.

Aceh, a province of 4 million people, has experienced guerrilla wars since the Dutch occupation in the 1870s.

The Indonesian army is feared in the region because of atrocities it has carried out in the past three decades, which have been documented in the State Department’s annual human rights reports.

“There was evidence that the Indonesian [military] considers anyone killed by its forces in conflict areas to be an armed rebel,” the department said in its latest report.

“The government largely failed to hold soldiers and police accountable for such killings and other serious human rights abuses in Aceh and Papua. Security forces continued to employ torture and other forms of abuse,” the document said.

Because of fears for their safety, the Acehnese plaintiffs in the lawsuit against Exxon are all named as John or Jane Does.

The lawsuit claims the plaintiffs or their family members were victims of abuses “including murder, torture, sexual violence and kidnapping” carried out by Indonesian soldiers hired by Exxon Mobil to guard its facilities.

Exxon executives have said the Indonesian military deployed at least 3,000 soldiers during the conflict in Aceh to guard a natural gas field and pipeline operated by the company on behalf of Indonesia’s state-run Pertamina energy conglomerate.

The International Labor Rights Fund hailed the judge’s ruling saying it was important to set a precedent by which “victims of torture could hold their torturers accountable.”

Bama Athreya, the fund’s deputy director, said Wednesday that the group would subpoena Exxon documents to find out “how much and for how long they paid the Indonesian military.”

The last round of fighting in Aceh, which began in 1976 when insurgents took up arms to carve out an independent state, claimed 15,000 lives. It ended with the signing of a peace agreement last year, after the December 2004 tsunami that killed more than 130,000 people in the province.

The disaster brought foreign humanitarian groups into an area that had been under martial law and closed to outsiders. It was a catalyst for both sides to conclude a peace accord granting Aceh wide local autonomy and, for the first time, control over its natural resources.

The former rebels, who now are forming a political party, are widely expected to win Aceh’s first local elections, set for June.

They have indicated they will re-examine Exxon Mobil’s contracts to operate the gas fields near the town of Lhokseumawe, claiming the agreements are not transparent because they were the result of a direct deal between the American company and Indonesia’s former dictator, Gen. Suharto.

The former dictator, who ruled from to 1967 to 1998 and is now 84, is said to be the sixth-wealthiest person in the world with a private fortune equivalent to U.S. $16 billion.

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