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Day Four 10.30.08 Witnesses

In Trial Notes on November 2, 2008 at 7:10 pm

Federal Courthouse, San Francisco. First hard rain of the Fall.

Witness: Larry Bowoto, Part II

Lead plaintiff  Larry Bowoto continued to testify on Thursday morning, with attorney Bert Vorhees questioning him about the Nigerian military raid on Parabe platform on March 28, 1998. It seemed to this observer, that Mr. Bowoto and his interpreter had settled into a more comfortable rhythm the second day of testimony. With a smoother pacing, it was easier for Mr. Voorhees to elicit a gripping narrative on the incident.

Mr. Voorhees first asked Mr. Bowoto if preparations had been made for evacuating the protesters on the morning of May 28th.  Mr. Bowoto answered that he had been informed that the elders had readied boats for the protesters’ departure.

Mr. Bowoto then described the events of May 28th: As Chevron helicopters arrived at the barge’s helipad, he witnessed soldiers leap from the chopper, firing their rifles and shooting tear gas canisters onto the barge deck. He stated that as an appointed coordinator, he felt obliged to intervene to protect the Illaje, so he ran down the stairs from the radio room to the deck, approaching the soldiers.  He raised his hands in the air and pleaded, “Don’t shoot! We’re community protesters; we are for peace; don’t shoot us!”

As he arrived on the deck, he saw a body lying on the deck in a pool of blood. A moment later, he heard a voice command: “Shoot him!”.  He felt a sharp pain and then lost consciousness.  He stated that he woke up at some point later and saw a white man wearing a Chevron hard-hat standing over him.  He asked the man for water and was refused.  He stated to the man: “After all the mistreatment you’ve given us, you won’t even give me water?” He also testified that at a certain point he overhead Lieutenant Afawane–commander of the platform’s security detail–arguing with the Nigerian military personnel: “These protestors have been here for three days, peacefully.” Mr. Bowoto confirmed that at no point did he or any other protestor (to his knowledge) carry any sort of weapon.

According to his testimony, Mr. Bowoto was eventually evacuated by helicopter to a nearby medical clinic onshore. Over the course of the next month, Mr. Bowoto recovered in a hospital, unable to contact his family. Aside from the physical pain, he suffered from what sound like classic symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder: he had recurring nightmares, leading to insomnia.

To convey the visceral effect of Mr. Bowoto’s ordeal, Mr. Voorhees asked him to show the jury his scars. Mr. Bowoto’s left hand is damaged–his fingers move with difficulty–his elbow shows a long scar and across his hip lay a broad gash of missing flesh where a bullet had passed.

Cross-examination:  Counsel for Defendants, Bob Mittelstaedt

Following Mr. Mittelstaedt’s aggressive cross-examination of Boyo Johnson, this observer anticipated a vigorous attack on Larry Bowoto’s testimony.  In the end, I don’t believe that Mr. Mittelstaedt had as much success with Mr. Bowoto.  Mittelstaedt began by feeling out contradictions in Bowoto’s testimony. He pressed Mr. Bowoto on minor details, such as how many nurses were aboard the helicopter that evacuated him–in his deposition he had stated two–and whom did he ask for water.  Perhaps as a set-up for a later line of questioning, Mittelstaedt asked Bowoto if, during his treatment, years later at Stanford University, he had been instructed not to eat or drink before his surgery.

With all of these questions ending in cul-de-sacs, Mittelstaedt turned to rhetorical flourish. Using a tense, prosecutorial rhythm, Mittelstaedt pressed Bowoto on his understanding of certain terms: “Does ransom mean holding someone against their will and asking money for their release? Boarding a platform and not letting workers go is kidnapping, correct? Calling Chevron and refusing to release workers until you receive money is hostage taking, correct?”

In this instance, the constant pauses for interpretation and the need to rephrase questions seemed to throw Mr. Mittelstaedt off balance.  Hoping to pepper Bowoto with rapid-fire acusations, he instead found himself flustered and forced to slow the pace of his attack.  In his steady replies, Larry Bowoto maintained his dignity.  He never played into to Mittelstaedt’s baiting and managed to remain calm as he formulated his answers: “If you go to the platform in a peaceful protest, this is not hostage taking. If you go to demand money in exchange for releasing people, this is. If you go to the platform in peace, carrying placards, you are not taking hostages.”

Abandoning this approach, Mittelstaedt attempted a few ‘gotcha’ questions, pointing out contradictions with Mr. Bowoto’s previous deposition testimony. Mittelstaedt pressed Bowoto to acknowledge that the protesters believed that Chevron would be concerned for their workers and that this led them to believe that Chevron would meet their demands. Mr. Mittelstaedt repeatedly tried to lay logical snare whereby Mr. Bowoto would admit that the CIC had planned on swaying Chevron by holding their workers hostage.

Given the language gap, the nuances that Mr. Mittelstaedt was trying to tease out seemed lost in translation. And Mr. Bowoto navigated the questions carefully. He stated that the CIC knew that Chevron would not want work on Parabe to go undone and that they believed this desire would press Chevron to negotiate. Mr. Bowoto was surprisingly effective in demonstrating that the protesters intention was to force Chevron to negotiate by causing a work-stoppage rather than by seizing Chevron employees.

Unable to get the response he wanted, Mr. Mittelstaedt continued pressing the question, but to no avail. Finally, Mittelstaedt unloaded a series of minor insinuations (e.g. was the person evacuated from the barge sick or were they injured?) None of which coalesced into a clear argument.

Eventually, the cross-exam shifted to focus on the formation of the CIC, with Mr. Mittelstaedt planting the suggestion that there was a power struggle between the CIC and the 9th Concessional Oil Bloc–the group that had previously negotiated job contracts with Chevron.

Following recess for lunch, Mr. Bowoto’s testimony was then interrupted when another of the plaintiffs’ witnesses apparently suffered a seizure.  Mr. Bowoto was shaken up and unable to testify.

Witness: Marco Simons

In his place, Marco Simons–legal director of EarthRights International and co-counsel for the plaintiffs–took the stand to present evidence against Chevron.  Mr. Simons showed the jury summaries of internal Chevron documents. The first summary was a record of receipts documenting Chevron’s payments to the Nigerian military and police.  One particularly damning invoice showed payments made to military personnel for “special duty at Escravos/Parabe” from 5/27/98 to 6/10/98. Here on paper was incontrovertible proof that Chevron had hired the soldiers who shot and assaulted Mr. Bowoto and the co-plaintiffs.

Mr. Simons also presented summaries showing the ‘shifting statements’ made by Chevron employees regarding the Parabe incident, and a diagram depicting the positions of Chevron employees serving as board members, officers or in high management for the various entities of the Chevron corporation (e.g. Chevron Nigeria Ltd., Chevron Corp., Chevron USA).  By inference, the table suggests that Chevron’s claim of the separation of Chevron Nigeria Ltd. and the three co-defendants is fictitious.

Later that afternoon, Mr. Bowoto returned to the stand for the defense’s cross-examination. Mr. Mittelstaedt commenced a new line of questioning on the CIC’s dissatisfaction with Chevron.  He asked if, in Mr. Bowoto’s opinion, Chevron had given jobs and scholarships to the communities through the oil blocs, but not enough. Mr. Bowoto replied that the issue was that Chevron was offering concessions to the oil blocs whose tenure as community leaders had expired and that Chevron was refusing to negotiate with the new representative organization: the CIC.

Shifting gears, Mittelstaedt then turned to inquire into Mr. Bowoto’s knowledge of the Itsekiri people’s occupation of the Parabe platform in March 1998.  He referred to January, 1998 letter sent by CIC to Chevron and spent what seemed in the courtroom to be an interminable amount of time questioning Mr. Bowoto on his understanding (in English) of certain lines of the letter.

It became clear that Mr. Bowoto’s English comprehension was limited. He stated that his job was not to write such letters; the elders had composed it. He signed the letter because he trusted the elders to write the letter and he believed that he would agree with their statement.  Repeatedly, Mittelstaedt pulled lines out from the letter and asked Mr. Bowoto to explain their meaning, but without translation Mr. Bowoto could only conjecture.

Mr. Bowoto defended himself when asked if he agreed with this quote: “On the 20th of March, Itsekeri youths trespassed onto the barge, pirated  and held the whole barge ransom for three days.” He responded that he was not the writer and that he did not know what the authors of the letter had meant by it.

Mittelstaedt then asked if he agreed that the term “sea piracy” referred to the Itsekiri’s actions. Mr. Bowoto again deferred to the authors’ intentions stating.  There were obvious communication problems, and Mr. Mittelstaedt reiterated his question in various phrasings at least 8 times, never satisfied with the response.  While his tactic of repeating the word ‘piracy’ might have have had some effect, Mr. Bowoto finally found a retort to this line of questioning that put it to a close: When asked if Concerned Ilaje Citizens had threatened Chevron with sea piracy in the letters, Mr. Bowoto replied: “If we were going for piracy, we would not have met with the governor of Ondo state first. If were going for piracy, we would not have carried placards in our boats.”

With that, Larry Bowoto had the last words of the first week of trial. Mr. Mittelstaedt posed a few more questions on the theme of boarding the platform without permission, but the day ended without the emergence of a coherent argument for the defendants.

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