By David Usborne
New York - Scores of multinational corporations will be accused of "aiding and abetting" the former South African apartheid regime and turning a blind eye to human rights atrocities in a controversial reparations case in New York.
A total of 34 household-name companies, including banks, car makers, pharmaceutical and energy giants, are targeted in a multibillion-dollar lawsuit brought by a legal team headed by Edward Fagan, a civil damages lawyer who last year won a $1,25-billion (about R10-billion) settlement from Swiss banks for victims of the Holocaust.
The start of the case in New York's Southern District Court has already threatened to reopen many of the wounds from the nearly 40 years of apartheid rule in South Africa.
Barring a settlement, the trial is expected to last months or even years. Lawyers for the plaintiffs may be looking for an early out-of-court settlement though.
"The defendants know it is not going to be as easy as they originally thought," said John Ngcebetsha, a South African lawyer working with Fagan. "They know they cannot afford to attract all this negative publicity for the next five or seven years."
The case is being brought under an obscure 18th century act - the US Alien Civil Torts Act - that allows citizens of foreign countries to sue any companies that do business in the United States in an American court.
Fagan successfully used the same act in pursuit of the Holocaust reparations.
For the defendants, the reparations suit has the potential to generate unwelcome public embarrassment and possibly severe financial implications.
Fagan, who is representing tens of thousands of victims of repression under apartheid, is suing the companies collectively for more than $100-billion.
The companies, none of which was willing to comment on Monday, constitute a roster of some of the biggest names in world commerce. They include Barclays, Natwest, Deutsche Bank, Dresdner Bank, UBS, Credit Suisse, Credit Lyonnais, Banque Indo Suez, IBM, Ford, Isuzu, DaimlerChrysler and Citigroup.
The financial institutions are accused of extending generous high-interest loans to the regime to keep it afloat in contravention of international sanctions. - Independent Foreign Service