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US Judge Allows Talisman Energy Sudan Genocide Lawsuit

Copyright © 2005, Dow Jones Newswires

NEW YORK (AP)--A U.S. judge refused to dismiss a church's lawsuit alleging that a Canadian energy company aided genocide in its pursuit of oil in Sudan, despite efforts by the United States and Canada to stop the suit.

In the lawsuit, Calgary-based Talisman Energy Inc. (TLM), Canada's biggest independent oil and gas exploration and production company, is accused of such crimes as ethnic cleansing, killings, war crimes, confiscation of property, enslavement, kidnapping and rape in Sudan.

Talisman and the Sudanese government collaborated on a plan for the security of oil fields, according to the suit, with Talisman hiring its own advisers to coordinate military strategy with the government. Talisman mapped out areas intended for exploration and discussed how to dispose of civilians in those areas, according to the suit.

The ruling allowing the suit to proceed came Tuesday after U.S. District Judge Denise Cote reviewed a diplomatic letter from the Canadian Embassy calling the case an "infringement in the conduct of foreign relations by the government of Canada" that would have a "chilling effect" on Canadian firms in the Sudan.

The judge said Canada had indicated that once Sudan peacefully resolved its internal disputes and Canadian trade support services resumed, Canadian companies would avoid joining Sudan's economic revitalization "out of fear of U.S. courts."

The U.S. Department of State told the court in a letter it took no position on the lawsuit's merits but shared the Canadian government's concerns.

But the judge noted in her ruling that the documents from the U.S. and Canadian governments didn't suggest the civil case would hinder U.S. relations with Canada or the Sudan.

"Even giving substantial deference to the Canada letter, Talisman has not shown that dismissal of this action is appropriate," the judge wrote. "Finally, the United States and the international community retain a compelling interest in the application of the international law proscribing atrocities such as genocide and crimes against humanity."

The lawsuit, which seeks unspecified damages, was brought in 2001 by the Presbyterian Church of Sudan on behalf of current and former residents of southern Sudan.

Lawyers for the plaintiffs and for Talisman Energy, which stopped doing business in the Sudan more than two years ago, did not immediately return telephone messages seeking comment Tuesday.

The judge said the U.S. Department of State indicated it might be proper to dismiss a case when another government protests that the suit interferes with its foreign policy in pursuit of goals that the United States shares.

The U.S. letter said the United States "has been working actively and directly with the government of Sudan and with the international community for several years to bring an end to the decades-old conflict in southern Sudan and to bring relief to the many thousands of victims of that conflict."

The letter also advised that the Alien Tort Claims Act, used as a basis for the lawsuit, should only apply to disputes affecting the rights of aliens within the U.S. for acts that take place in this country, the judge said.

The obscure 1789 law originally was enacted to prosecute pirates but has been used since 1980 by Holocaust survivors and relatives of people killed or tortured under despotic foreign regimes. More recently, it has been invoked against multinational corporations, including Chevron Corp. (CVX) over alleged abuses in Nigeria and Exxon Mobil Corp. (XOM) over alleged problems in Indonesia.

The judge acknowledged that the U.S. Supreme Court has said federal courts should give serious weight to the executive branch's view of a case's impact on foreign policy.

But she said there were few cases similar to the Talisman case and that it differed from a case in which large corporations were accused of using cheap labor in South Africa to sell products including technology and oil. That case was tossed out.

In the Talisman case, she said, the plaintiffs allege that the company "knowingly assisted Sudan in perpetrating a campaign of genocide and crimes against humanity, not that Talisman merely transacted business in and with Sudan."

She said the South African apartheid cases resulted from state executive policies encouraging investment whereas the Talisman claims involve knowing assistance in the commission of grave human-tights abuses.

She said the contents of Canada's letter suggest "a lack of understanding about the nature of the claims" in the lawsuit.

Barry Nelson, a spokesman for Talisman in Calgary, said Wednesday the company would have no comment on the lawsuit.

"Judge Cote has instructed both parties to the suit not to try the case in the media and we are honoring her instructions," he told The Associated Press.

Shares of Talisman, which reported sales of $5.3 billion in 2004, rose 95 Canadian cents to C$58.05 in early Wednesday trading on the Toronto Stock Exchange. The shares have traded in a 52-week range between C$28.90 and C$58.45.

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

08-31-05 1144ET

Copyright (c) 2005 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.