* Case brought by widows of activists executed in 1995
* Shell ordered to turn over any papers that could help claimants
* Shell denies any liability in “strongest possible terms”
* Large punitive damages award unlikely in Netherlands (Updates with Amnesty reaction, lawyer quote)
By Bart H. Meijer
THE HAGUE, May 1 (Reuters) - A Dutch court said on Wednesday it has jurisdiction to hear a damages suit brought against Royal Dutch Shell by four widows of activists executed by the Nigerian government in 1995.
In a preliminary decision, judges at the Hague District Court said they would allow the suit to go forward, a rare win in a decades-long legal fight, though the claimants must still prove Shell’s liability. Shell denies wrongdoing.
“This procedure will continue,” said presiding judge Larissa Alwin, reading the decision of a three-judge panel.
The men executed were among a group that became known as the “Ogoni Nine” - activists who included writer Ken Saro-Wiwa.
The group had protested against Shell’s exploitation of the Niger Delta. Its nine members were arrested and hanged after a flawed trial that turned international opinion against Nigeria’s then-military rulers.
Alwin ordered Shell to turn over documents that could help the claimants’ case, specifically any evidence that Shell paid people to give false information about the activists to Nigerian law-enforcement officials.
Dutch courts do not award large punitive damages claims, though the case has the potential to embarrass Shell and provide a measure of comfort for the activists’ families if it finds the company bears responsibility in their deaths.
“I am glad that the court has found it has jurisdiction,” lead plaintiff Esther Kiobel, whose husband Barinem Kiobel was among those executed, said outside the courtroom.
“My husband was killed like a criminal. I want him to be exonerated.”
Relatives have sought to hold the Anglo-Dutch energy company partially responsible in foreign courts, after exhausting legal possibilities in Nigeria.
Shell, headquartered in the Hague, paid $15.5 million to one group of activists’ families, including the Saro-Wiwa estate, in the United States in a 2009 settlement in which Shell also denied any responsibility or wrongdoing.
A second group led by Kiobel fought on in the United States until the U.S. Supreme Court rejected jurisdiction in 2013. Backed by Amnesty International, Kiobel and three other widows have continued legal action in Britain and the Netherlands.
“We’re not doing this to settle, we’re seeking to hold Shell to account,” Amnesty’s Mark Dummett said after the ruling, which he described as a “mixed decision”.
He said he was disappointed judges had rejected broader arguments that Shell was intertwined with the military government in power in Nigeria in 1995. But he was pleased the court had accepted jurisdiction and disregarded Shell’s arguments that the case was too old to hear.
The judges rejected assertions by the widows that Shell should have done more to prevent their husbands’ executions.
“We continue to deny all the allegations in the strongest possible terms,” Shell representative Igo Weli said outside the court.
“Shell was not responsible for what happened. Shell actually made an appeal for clemency (in the Ogoni Nine case), but sadly this was not heard.”
Weli, who works for Shell’s Nigerian subsidiary, said the company would give the claimants access to internal documents as ordered.
No date has yet been set for a next hearing to submit additional evidence or a final decision. (Reporting by Bart Meijer; Additional reporting by Tife Owolabi and Toby Sterling; Editing by Dale Hudson)