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US court probes alleged Nigeria, Shell torture

WASHINGTON --- The U.S. Supreme Court began its new session on Monday by re-examining an explosive international case alleging that oil giant Shell was complicit in acts of torture by the Nigerian government.

Fresh from their pivotal decision in June to uphold President Barack Obama's health care overhaul, the nine Supreme Court justices took up a case with enormously important ramifications for international human rights.

The legal argument pivots on whether foreign plaintiffs have a right to file suit in American courts against U.S. corporations accused of human rights violations, under an arcane 200-year-old statute.

In Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum, the oil giant is accused of being an accomplice to torture, extrajudicial executions and crimes against humanity by the Nigerian government between 1992 and 1995 in the Niger Delta region.

Shell is alleged have helped the former dictatorship arrest and torture 12 members of the Ogoni tribe, who had sought to peacefully disrupt oil development because of its health and environmental impacts.

Esther Kiobel, now a U.S. citizen, brought her claims on behalf of her late husband, Barinem Kiobel, who was executed in a sham trial in which Shell is alleged to have played a key role.

Plaintiffs have invoked the Alien Tort Statute (ATS), which allows non-citizens to sue in U.S. courts for violations of international law.

Human rights lawyers already use the obscure statute to seek damages in U.S. courts from foreign governments involved in human rights abuses.

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