SAN FRANCISCO — A Nigerian villager who is suing Chevron Corp. for human rights violations testified in federal court Thursday that he was shot four times by Nigerian troops at a Chevron oil platform even though he was unarmed.
"I saw military men jump off a helicopter, and as they jumped off they were shooting," Larry Bowoto, 44, testified through an interpreter. "I was raising my hands [and shouting], 'We are community protesters. We are for peace. Don't shoot us.' "
Bowoto is the lead plaintiff in a landmark suit against San Ramon-based Chevron. Under the Alien Tort Claims Act, foreigners can sue U.S. companies on allegations of human rights violations overseas.
Bowoto brought the suit with 18 other Nigerians who were injured or lost a family member in 1998, when more than 100 villagers came to the Parabe oil platform and an adjoining barge to protest Chevron's actions.
The villagers' attorney, Dan Stormer, said Chevron used three company helicopters and pilots to fly the troops to the platform nine miles off the coast. He said the "notoriously brutal" government troops killed two protesters and wounded two others, including Bowoto.
An autopsy concluded that one of the dead was shot four times in the back. Other protesters were arrested and tortured, Stormer said.
Chevron attorney Bob Mittelsteadt said the company acted properly in calling in the authorities to protect its employees and was not responsible for the troops' actions. He said the villagers at the platform were "illegal invaders" who held workers hostage for more than three days.
Mittelsteadt acknowledged that it was common for Chevron and other foreign companies to supplement the salaries of Nigerian police and soldiers, but said the payments did not make them company employees.
The villagers in the Niger River delta had grown increasingly upset in recent years over the lack of jobs for villagers and ecological damage they believe was caused by oil operations.
The company's dredging destroyed the local fishery, fouled village wells and ruined the soil, depriving the villagers of their livelihood, the villagers say.
Leaders of the Ilaje ethnic group say they repeatedly appealed to Chevron for assistance, but got little response.
After the rival Itsekiri ethnic group won jobs by staging a protest at the oil platform in March 1998, the Ilaje decided to try a similar tactic. More than 100 Ilaje villagers went to the platform in late May.
Boyo Johnson, an Itsekiri who was hired after the earlier protest, testified Wednesday that he was at the platform when the Ilaje arrived. They were "peaceful and friendly" and company officials did not prohibit them from coming aboard the barge, he said.
An armed five-man military unit stationed at the facility had no trouble with the protesters, he said. Johnson rejected the idea that he and other workers were being held hostage and said that the soldiers continued to patrol the barge armed with their rifles. Their weapons were the only ones he saw, he said.
During his testimony, Bowoto wept several times. At one point, he showed the nine-member jury the wound in his elbow where he was shot while holding up his hands and the scar on his side, where a large chunk of flesh is missing.
"I was in terrible pain," he said as he recalled lying wounded on the barge. "I was thinking I would die."