By Aisyah LlewellynPublished On 8 Feb 2022
Medan, Indonesia – John Doe can still recall the moment his alleged torturers made him believe he would never see his family again.
It was in 2000 in Aceh Province, Indonesia, following his alleged capture by members of the Indonesian military working at the nearby ExxonMobil gas plant.
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“They tied me up in a crucifix position and electrocuted me,” Doe, who uses a pseudonym to protect his identity, told Al Jazeera. “I just kept praying to God in my heart. I thought: ‘I’m going to die today.’”
“People who were captured by the Exxon army rarely returned home,” he added.
John Doe’s harrowing testimony is part of a civil lawsuit that could finally reach trial this year after languishing more than two decades in the United State’s clogged legal system.
Originally filed in 2001 in the District Court for the District of Columbia, John Doe v ExxonMobil alleges that the gas and oil giant is responsible for a litany of human rights abuses at its Aceh plant in the early 2000s, including battery, sexual assault, rape and wrongful deaths.
“I filed our human rights case against ExxonMobil in 2001 for its use of a brutal private military to protect its natural gas liquefaction facilities in Aceh, Indonesia,” human rights lawyer Terry Collingsworth told Al Jazeera.
“Exxon’s soldiers killed and tortured my clients and many others, all innocent civilians who lived near the Exxon facilities.”
Aceh Province is home to extensive oil and natural gas deposits as well as timber and other minerals, and the province produces about one-third of Indonesia’s liquified natural gas.
Mobil Oil Indonesia, which was bought by Exxon in 1999 to become ExxonMobil Corporation, first moved into the region in the early 1970s after discovering natural gas deposits near the town of Lhoksukon. By the late 1990s, the company was generating more than $1bn in annual revenues.
At the same time, Aceh was in the grip of a 20-year civil war between the national government and the separatist Free Aceh Movement (GAM). From the 1980s through to the early 2000s, the Indonesian military regularly clashed with the separatists, prompting ExxonMobil to contract Indonesian soldiers to guard its staff and operations at its facilities.
In 2000, ExxonMobil was paying more than $500,000 a month to retain members of the Indonesian military as security personnel, according to court documents.
The 11 plaintiffs in John Doe v ExxonMobil allege that the soldiers did much more than just guard ExxonMobil’s interests, and instead regularly conducted raids during which they would round up villagers and torture them into admitting they were separatists, sometimes even bringing them onto ExxonMobil property to conduct violent interrogations.
“If I get hit by an ExxonMobil truck driver, I get to sue ExxonMobil, not the truck driver,” Michel Paradis, a human rights lawyer and lecturer at Columbia Law School in New York, told Al Jazeera.
“The two key points of this case are liability and foreseeability. The plaintiffs will have to show that it was more likely than not that the individuals in question worked for ExxonMobil and that it was more likely than not that ExxonMobil knew or should have known the risks posed by the military personnel in that particular area to the civilian population,” Paradis, who is not involved in the case, added.
In court documents, ExxonMobil has claimed it was not aware of any human rights violations at the time, and cannot be held responsible for any abuses that did occur as it did not order or authorise them.
“We have fought these baseless claims for many years,” ExxonMobil spokesperson Todd Spitler told Al Jazeera. “The plaintiff’s claims are without merit. While conducting its business in Indonesia, ExxonMobil has worked for generations to improve the quality of life in Aceh through employment of local workers, provision of health services and extensive community investment. The company strongly condemns human rights violations in any form.”
‘Scorched earth approach’
Since the case was filed in June 2001, lawyers for ExxonMobil have tried on nine separate occasions to have it thrown out.
“That highlights what is now another very important objective of the case,” said Collingsworth. “Exxon’s lawyers have used a scorched earth approach designed to delay the case and make it as expensive as possible for us to achieve justice for our clients.”
At various points throughout the litigation, ExxonMobil has sought to cast doubt on the veracity of the plaintiffs’ claims, even going as far as accusing their counsel of having bribed them with gifts in order to get them to testify.
“If we were lying, why would we keep going for 20 years?” one of the plaintiffs told Al Jazeera, speaking on condition of anonymity. “This has to be resolved. Even if I die, my children and grandchildren will keep carrying this with them.”
The plaintiff alleges he was kidnapped by soldiers working for ExxonMobil and tortured for three months. At one point during his interrogation, he said, he was blindfolded and made to touch a mound of severed heads which his captors said belonged to executed separatists.
The plaintiffs’ legal team has filed more than 300 pages of factual findings, 400 exhibits and five expert reports in the hope of convincing the presiding judge that the case should go to trial. They are hopeful a trial date could be set as early as this spring.
“This case, now entering year 21, must also serve as a strong example that companies like Exxon cannot use their unlimited resources to escape justice,” said Collingsworth.
Collingsworth added that ExxonMobil should have accepted responsibility at the outset, rather than spending millions of dollars to avoid helping the families they injured.
“We can only hope that our case will inspire judicial reforms to prevent other multinationals from abusing the system to delay justice,” he said.
Over the years, similar cases have been dismissed by courts, such as Kiobel v Royal Dutch Petroleum, which was decided in 2013.
Nigerian plaintiffs had claimed that Dutch, British and Nigerian oil companies were responsible for extrajudicial killings, crimes against humanity and torture after the Nigerian government conducted a brutal crackdown on local communities resisting oil development in Ogoniland in the Niger Delta.
“Corporations, as a rule, are loath to admit liability even when it’s painfully obvious,” Paradis said. “Even when they are paying fines to the government, for example, they always make sure they don’t admit liability of any kind. There is just a culture of that. It’s not about the money, there are deeper cultural drivers there.”
Yet despite the delays and lack of legal precedent, Paradis said he was optimistic about the alleged victims’ chances in John Doe v ExxonMobil, considering the fact the case had managed to survive this long.
“I think the plaintiffs have a pretty straightforward and sympathetic case to tell,” he said.
“If they get to trial, I think Exxon should be worried.”