Blog | March 5, 2018

Shell and Eni go to trial: a new chapter opens

I love it when a plan comes together. Presumably phrases of this type are commonplace in the backrooms and bars where corruption plans are hatched, as palms are greased and pockets are stuffed with stolen money.

But sometimes those of us on the other side of the fence who are fighting corruption get to say it too. Our plan is to see that oil firms are held accountable when they try to engage in corruption, that they pay the price for their actions and that justice is done for the citizens who have their assets looted.

And this morning in a chilly Milan we witnessed the next crucial stage in the unfolding saga of Shell and Eni’s involvement in the Nigerian oil block OPL 245. Today saw the opening hearing of one of the largest corporate corruption trials in history. Shell, Eni and 13 individuals, including their current and previous top oil executives, are facing charges of international corruption over a Nigerian oil deal where $1.1 billion was siphoned off. This is home ground for Eni, an Italian oil major part-owned by the Italian state. Not that we know right now who will be running the Italian state next, but as in both politics and court cases patience and strategy are paramount.

We suspected that the opening day of the trial would be mostly procedural, lacking the lightning and firecrackers to come when high-profile defendants will be cross-examined and evidence put before the judges in this historic trial.

But it was nonetheless a tense curtain-raiser, rich with symbolism and reeking of reputations to be won and lost. All the relevant parties gathered in a small courtroom in the Milan Palace of Justice. Each of the 15 parties charged was represented by a lawyer, Global Witness’ lawyers were there, plus lawyers for other NGOs. Importantly there were also lawyers seeking to be recognised as legal representatives for the Federal Republic of Nigeria, representing the people who have lost most of all. All dressed in very fetching, flowing black gowns with white bibs.

All in all there were nearly seventy people in a room designed for twenty - including three judges, at least thirty-five lawyers, a gaggle of press, four NGOs, and a giant metal cage. Yep, just to remind us in the starkest way possible that this is all about a huge legal charge, the far side of the courtroom was occupied by a long cell of black iron bars. In fact halfway through the proceedings two men in handcuffs were guided slowly by armed police through the lawyerly throng and locked up in the cell, awaiting their turn in a subsequent case. Nice dramatic touch for the day after the Oscars.

Global Witness applied to be a civil party to the case this morning, as did UK NGO Corner House, Re:Common from Italy and HEDA from Nigeria. You could have heard a pin drop as our lawyers approached the three judges to enter our application. Many of the multitude of lawyers representing Shell, Eni and the other defendants appeared genuinely concerned at this intervention, as they looked on wide-eyed and began to scribble notes fiercely. You could feel the electricity as the realisation dawned across the room that this is truly adversarial and the world is watching.

Less than an hour later this first step towards justice had been taken. The trial has opened, but due to caseload pressure the three judges passed this case on to a new set of judges. So now we wait until the next hearing on May 14, when the trial schedule should be confirmed and things can really start in earnest.

This case could take a year to play out, but the wheels are now rolling. Buckle up, this has all the makings of a very intriguing and groudbreaking ride. Watch this space. Ciao.


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