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State Department Denies Visas to Witnesses

In News Generally, Preliminaries on October 24, 2008 at 11:17 pm
Jason Doiy/The Recorder. Courtesy of www.law.com.
U.S. District Judge Susan Illston. Image: Jason Doiy/The Recorder. Courtesy of http://www.law.com.

The trial starts Monday, so I thought I’d revisit some of the recent developments.

Back in August, the State Department decided to deny visas to the Nigerian witnesses scheduled to testify. Northern District Court of California Judge, Susan Illston was informed of the decision by Chevron’s attorney Robert Mittelstaedt of Jones Day’s San Francisco office.  According to Mr. Mittelstaedt  11 of the 12 witnesses were denied visas because there was little proof that they would return home after testifying. The State Department offered no official statement.

It’s seems unlikely that witnesses testifying in such a high-profile case would have an easy time violating their entry visas. The lack of a plausible justification has fueled speculation that State’s decision was a political move, motivated by Chevron’s lobbying efforts or by the Bush administration’s known antipathy to ATS suits.

According to one article,  attorney for the plaintiffs, Theresa Traber of Traber & Voorhees, included a request in her filing for a trial delay that would require Chevron to deliver a sworn declaration that it played no role in pressuring  the Nigerian  or  U.S. governments to withhold the visas. Mr. Mittelstaedt vehemently denied the accusations and attributed them to “an unrelenting publicity campaign attacking us.”

Judge Illston dismissed the plaintiff’s suggestion as mere innuendo, but nonetheless condemned the  decision in strong words: “I am shocked that the State Department would take that point of view, that [the witnesses] will not be granted visas to testify in a federal court […] That is a different branch of government and I can’t do anything about it, but I am shocked.”

Judge Illston agreed to delay the start of the trial from September 28th to October 27th.  The court will hear the witnesses’ testimony via videotaped depositions.

***

Gut reaction: disregarding the insinuations, the decision to deny these visas still speaks volumes to this administration’s hostility to international human rights law in general, and the growing body of ATS suits in particular.  

Here’s hoping the next four years will see the State Department and DOJ finally acting as real “friends of the court” when it comes to international human rights cases.

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