Unocal Pipeline Trial to Begin
Seven years after it was filed, a landmark human rights lawsuit against Unocal Corp. is set to go to trial Tuesday in Los Angeles.
The first phase of the complex case, closely watched by human rights advocates and multinational companies facing similar civil suits, will decide the seemingly arcane but potentially pivotal point of which Unocal corporate entity should be the defendant.
If the case moves to the second phase, the trial will then turn to the specific allegations: that Unocal indirectly aided and profited from human rights abuses -- including murder, rape and forced labor -- carried out by soldiers guarding a natural gas pipeline in Myanmar.
In recent pretrial hearings, Unocal has signaled that it would attack the credibility of the some of the plaintiffs, including a woman known as Jane Doe 1, whose account of her infant’s death at the hands of Myanmar soldiers is the most vivid and best-known in the case. The company has produced evidence that it said contradicts key facts in her story.
More broadly, Unocal denies that it had knowledge of the incidents or control over the Myanmar military and says it should not be held liable for any human rights violations.
On Tuesday, the El Segundo-based company will urge Superior Court Judge Victoria Gerrard Chaney to dismiss the case before a jury hears any evidence because, the company will argue, the plaintiffs sued the wrong corporate entities.
Unocal’s lawyers have said the targeted parent companies -- Unocal and Union Oil Co. of California -- were not legally responsible for the $1.2-billion pipeline, which transports natural gas from the Andaman Sea to Thailand across the southern panhandle of the nation formerly known as Burma. Instead, the lawyers say, several subsidiaries are responsible for any liabilities that arise from the pipeline, which Unocal operates in partnership with French oil company Total, Myanmar’s ruling junta and a Thai utility.
Lawyers for the plaintiffs -- 15 refugees who live in hiding under a court-ordered cloak of anonymity -- allege the subsidiaries are mere shells, some of them incorporated after some of the abuses occurred.
About two dozen suits in federal courts across the country accuse firms of complicity in human rights abuses abroad. The Bush administration has joined business groups in opposing the suits, and none of the federal cases has reached trial. The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals is considering the fate of a companion suit against Unocal filed in federal court.
For Unocal, the subsidiary argument is only the first line of defense. Its lawyers have begun laying the groundwork for an attack on some of the underlying allegations. In recent hearings, lead Unocal lawyer Daniel Petrocelli accused two of the plaintiffs, Jane Doe 1 and her husband, John Doe 1, of purposefully misdirecting the blame for an assault on the family.
The couple has said that after the husband ran out of food and fled a forced-labor crew for the pipeline, soldiers came looking for him and found his wife. Jane Doe 1, who recounted her story in an interview with The Times a year ago, said that soldiers assaulted her, knocking her baby out of her arms and into a cooking fire, and that the baby died of internal injuries after they arrived in a Thai refugee camp.
Petrocelli submitted a Thai newspaper article that links the attack to soldiers dragooning labor for a railway project -- not the pipeline, as the suit alleges. The story is accompanied by a photograph of Jane Doe 1 cradling her injured baby.
Because the article states the baby was injured but alive at the time, Petrocelli said there was a possibility she survived the assault.
“I don’t know if it’s a murder,” he said in an interview. “I don’t know if it’s even deceased.”
Petrocelli pointed out that the article was published in the Bangkok-based newspaper The Nation on March 22, 1994 -- more than a year before the couple had said the incidents occurred.
Unocal lawyers also have uncovered a human rights group’s report, dated April 13, 1994, that includes another account of the attack and links it to forced labor on a railway, this time near a village that is located far from the pipeline route. Both accounts appear to be based on interviews with the husband.
There is only one conclusion to draw from the two new documents, Petrocelli said. The most infamous allegation in the suit is “a complete fabrication so far as it’s being laid at the feet of Unocal,” he said. “It’s been the big lie in this case told for the past seven years.”
Lawyers for the plaintiffs said they had plenty of evidence showing the attack on the family was carried out by soldiers with a battalion guarding and preparing the area for the pipeline.
John Doe 1 may have been confused when he gave the interviews, said Katie Redford, a plaintiffs’ lawyer and founder of Earthrights International, a human rights group that is backing the suit. She said he was one of many villagers forced to work on both the pipeline, which runs east-west, and the railway, which runs north-south.
“The soldiers don’t show up and say, ‘We’re working on the pipeline survey road,’ ” Redford said. But her client’s story, she said, clearly indicates it was the east-west pipeline on which he worked.
Plaintiffs’ lawyers said they eventually were able to distinguish pipeline work from railway work by identifying the type and location of the labor, as well as the battalions involved in each of the plaintiffs’ cases.
Jane Doe 1 has said the uniforms of the soldiers who came after her and her baby bore the insignia of Battalion No. 407, Redford said. That was one of several military units that “hired” villagers to work as porters, carrying weapons, supplies and equipment in the pipeline area, according to a document prepared by Total.
The 1994 human rights group’s report ties Battalion No. 407 to the pipeline, saying “10 new battalions” -- up to No. 410 -- had been sent to the area “mainly to secure the gas pipeline route. This flood of new troops and their demands for money, food and slave [labor] have already made life desperate for the villagers, and the Ye-Tavoy railway has driven them the final step to starvation.”
Plaintiffs’ lawyers acknowledge that their clients have trouble with dates and say the newly discovered newspaper article helps pin down the year the attack on the family occurred. The plaintiffs are Karen and Mon, ethnic minorities who lived a primitive existence as subsistence farmers and fishermen in a remote part of Myanmar where calendars are not used.
As for the death of the baby, plaintiffs’ lawyers said it must have occurred after the interview and photographs were taken for the newspaper article. “The only thing we concede,” Redford said, “is that these people aren’t good at dates.”