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Colombian takes BP to court in UK over alleged complicity in kidnap and torture


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BP says it will defend unprecedented claim by trade union leader Gilberto Torres in case that spotlights role of big carbon in one of Colombia’s darkest periods

 

 

Mary Carson, Adrian Gatton, Rodrigo Vázquez and Maggie O'Kane

 

Friday 22 May 2015 07.57 BST

 

 

 

A Colombian trade union leader is beginning an unprecedented claim for damages against BP in the high court in London, alleging the oil company’s complicity in his kidnap and torture 13 years ago.

 

Gilberto Torres, 52, was abducted in February 2002 while driving home from an oil-pumping station in Casanare, eastern Colombia, and was released after 42 days, only after workers threatened a national oil strike. The case, which begins on Friday, will throw a spotlight on one of the murkiest periods in Colombia’s history, and the role of big business in it.

 

His lawyers say that it is the first time a union leader has been able to lodge a claim for human rights abuses against a multinational oil company in the high court. They believe his claim could pave the way for scores more similar actions.

 

BP denies any involvement. It says it will “vigorously” defend the claim.

 

Torres tells his story for the first time in a Guardian online documentary. The film includes the extraordinary testimony of his kidnappers when they finally faced trial.

 

The UN estimates that 3,000 union activists were murdered and 6,000 more disappeared in the Casanare region in the last 30 years. The targeting of them by pro-government paramilitaries went largely unnoticed outside Colombia because of the civil war raging between the Colombian government and Farc, the leftwing guerrilla group.

 

Torres was abducted at gunpoint shortly after he organised a strike in protest over the murder of another union leader. He had received increased threats in the days leading up to him being taken.

 

He tells the Guardian how he watched as his captors, who later claimed they were paid to protect the pipeline by the oil companies, questioned a suspected Farc rebel. “They hit him. They insulted him. They spat on him. They battered him, until he confessed that he was part of Farc. With that admission, he signed his death warrant.

 

“They shot him twice in the neck. They cut his head, his legs and his arms off. And at the end the commander with a machete started to puncture his corpse. I understood then that this was going to happen to me.”

 

After six weeks in captivity, 10 days in a flooded outdoor pit infested with red ants, and days of interrogation aimed at getting him to confess to being a member of a leftwing guerrilla movement, Torres was unexpectedly handed over to the Red Cross. He is only the second trade union leader in the history of 40 years of conflict in Colombia to have survived an abduction.

 

Torres worked for the oil workers’ union USO, representing 400 members working on the 515-mile (830km) Ocensa pipeline, which carried crude from Casanare to the Caribbean Sea.

 

Ocensa was set up by major oil companies including BP, Colombia’s state-owned enterprise Ecopetrol, and four other multinational companies, to build and own the pipeline.

 

It was pumping $7m (£4.5m) worth of crude oil every day. BP was the biggest oil producer in the area.

 

Union protests sanctioned by Torres were disrupting production. He wanted to draw attention to the disappearance of union colleagues and had been highly vocal the previous week about members of an army brigade, charged with protecting the pipeline, training on company grounds.

 

BP, like other oil companies operating in Colombia at the time, paid a government tax of $1 a barrel to help finance army and police protection of oil facilities. According to journalists who carried out an investigation into BP’s security provision in 1995, the company signed a three-year collaborative agreement with the Colombia defence ministry worth $11.6m, of which BP would provide $2.2m.

 

Much of that was spent on the 16th Brigade, an army unit assigned specifically to protect the company’s oil installations. The army is accused of contracting out that work to local pro-government paramilitaries – with often lethal results.

 

In the wake of the oil boom, the Colombian army and paramilitaries brought to Casanare a US-designed counter-insurgency strategy of dirty war, known locally as “quitarle agua al pez” or “draining the fish tank”. Instead of fighting the guerrillas, they would target people they considered sympathisers.

 

Sue Willman, partner in Deighton Pierce Glynn, the London firm representing Torres, said there would be no accusation that BP was directly involved in his abduction. But the company had failed to take action to halt paramilitary activity.

 

Willman said: “Amnesty International went to BP a number of times warning them about the murders and disappearances. But BP failed to act effectively on the warnings.”

 

Pro-government paramilitaries who were convicted in Bogotá of kidnapping Torres claimed that Ocensa had paid for the murder. As well as its arrangements over the pipeline, BP had a 15.2% stake in Ocensa. Their testimony is heard in the Guardian documentary for the first time outside Colombia.

 

Ocensa said it “did not commission, order or pay for Gilberto Torres’s kidnapping”. It said it never caused displacement, kidnapping or murder in 20 years of operating in the Casanare region.

 

BP, Ocensa and Ecopetrol all deny they paid paramilitaries to guard the pipeline.

 

BP is one of the fossil fuel companies that the Guardian is calling on two of the world’s two largest health charities, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Wellcome Trust, to divest from through its Keep it in the Ground campaign. The Gates Foundation’s Asset Trust has a £243m ($380M) holding and Wellcome has £118m ($184.6M) in BP, according to the most recent figures.

 

 

 

http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2015/may/22/colombian-takes-bp-to-court-in-uk-alleged-complicity-kidnap-and-torture

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