London-based mining trans-national Rio Tinto can be sued in the US over allegations it aided the government of Papua New Guinea commit genocide and war crimes, a US federal appeals court ruled on Tuesday.
The lawsuit was originally filed by residents of the island of Bougainville, an autonomous region of Papua New Guinea (PNG), in 2000.
It alleges that Rio Tinto's mining operations on the island resulted in the dumping of billions of tons of toxic waste, heavily polluting previously pristine waters.
According to the lawsuit, this resulted in the exposure of dangerous chemicals to local residents, dispossessing them of their ancestral lands and destroying their culture.
And after a popular uprising by the residents of Bougainville forced Rio to close the mine in 1989, the company allegedly provided transport for PNG troops who were brought in in a vain bid to reopen it.
The government imposed a military blockade, apparently under pressure from Rio Tinto, which allegedly dragged on for 10 years and led to the deaths of nearly 10,000 people.
The case was sent to the US Court of Appeals when Rio Tinto questioned a District Court's ruling that the plaintiffs were entitled to pursue claims of war crimes and genocide in US courts without exhausting legal options in PNG first.
The Court of Appeals affirmed the District Court's ruling on Tuesday.
Judge Mary Schroeder said the complaint's allegation that Rio Tinto's "modus operandi" was to treat indigenous people on the island as "expendable" justified restoring the genocide claim to the case.
And Ms Schroeder said that claims Rio Tinto had acted for its own private ends in pressing the PNG military to murder civilians justified restoring the war crimes claim.
The court also ruled that the Alien Tort Statute of 1789, which enables foreign nationals to sue over conduct that allegedly violates international law, does not preclude the charging of corporate defendants for genocide and war crimes.
Rio Tinto had claimed that only individuals could be charged under the statute.
Lawyer Steve Berman, who is representing Bougainville residents, said: "We are obviously very pleased with the ruling - Rio Tinto has used every tool available to delay answering for its actions."
Rio Tinto spokesman Tony Shaffer said: "We intend to defend ourselves vigorously against these improper claims."
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