LIMA, Peru — Should victims of a South American military dictatorship be allowed to seek compensation in the United States against a European auto manufacturer allegedly complicit in brutal repression?
That’s the thorny issue the US Supreme Court will decide after agreeing to hear an appeal by the German company Daimler aimed at ending a lawsuit filed in San Francisco by a group of 22 Argentines that includes torture victims and relatives of murdered labor activists.
The abuses took place in the 1970s, when thousands of leftist opponents disappeared under an ultra-right-wing military regime that ruled Argentina with an iron fist.
Nine of the victims had been labor representatives at Daimler subsidiary Mercedes-Benz’s Gonzalez-Catan plant near Buenos Aires.
The abductions and presumed murders — no bodies have ever been found — came at a time of huge strife between the plant’s 4,500 workers and management over pay and conditions.
Daimler, which owned Chrysler until 2007, doesn’t dispute the disappearances, or even that Mercedes-Benz management cooperated to some degree with the Argentine authorities at the time.
But it does deny both requesting the torture and murders and colluding with the police and military death squads that carried them out.
It’s now also asking the Supreme Court to rule that California has no jurisdiction over the events in Argentina, to prevent the lawsuit from being tried at a federal court in San Francisco.
The highest American court is expected to hear the case, brought under various laws including the 1789 Alien Torts Act, in October and give its ruling by June 2014.
Originally intended to hold pirates on the high seas to account in the United States, the Alien Torts Act has increasingly been used by human rights activists to sue corporations accused of abuses in the developing world, including Shell in Nigeria and Chevron-Texaco in Ecuador.
“None of the facts, witnesses, or documents in this case can be found in the US, much less California,” Daimler told GlobalPost by email, suggesting that if any trial were to take place, it ought to be in Argentina.
However, that hasn’t deterred the plaintiffs, who are unconvinced the South American country’s courts can deliver justice. They also cite the huge number of vehicles Mercedes-Benz sells in the United States, operating from its national headquarters in Palo Alto, which is near San Francisco.
The Gonzalez-Catan factory offered its skilled workers some of the best pay in Argentina in the 1970s. Nevertheless, it was unable to avoid getting sucked into the turmoil as the country descended into a “dirty war” between left-wing rebels and the police and military, during which targeted assassinations took place on both sides.
In March 1976, the armed forces launched a coup before unleashing a wave of terror against real and perceived opponents, including leftist activists, students, journalists and, above all, union leaders.
Argentina’s official truth and reconciliation report into the issue, the National Commission on the Disappearances of Persons, concluded that 8,961 were “disappeared” between 1976 and 1983.
However, some human rights groups believe that figure to be a serious underestimate. They put the real number as high as 30,000.
With inflation skyrocketing at the time, tense pay talks were held at the Gonzalez-Catan plant every few months in an increasingly febrile atmosphere.
On several occasions, police seized union representatives from their homes in the middle of the night. They were never seen again.
One union leader who avoided being abducted, Eduardo Fachal, said he “rotated” where he slept, moving every night from one friend’s house to another.
But he believes what ultimately saved him was his moderate stance within the union and his opposition to plans for a strike.
“That just would have led to more disappearances,” he said. “We were in a situation in which political and social rights did not exist. The most important thing was to preserve life. Arguing that within the union may have been what saved me.”
The controversy over Daimler’s alleged collusion has been bubbling away for more than two decades.
The company even commissioned a 2003 report by the respected German human rights lawyer Christian Tomuschat, who was appointed on the advice of Amnesty International to look into the scandal.
Although he cleared Daimler, he found the company had provided the Argentine authorities with critical information about labor leaders at the factory.
In the case of disappeared union delegate Esteban Reimer, the report noted “MBA [Mercedes-Benz Argentina] has supplied information from company personnel files, including passport photographs, to the state secret service at its request. These actions put Reimer in danger.”
“However, even in his case, incitement to kidnapping and murder is neither provable nor probable.”
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The plaintiffs dismiss the Tomuschat report as corporate whitewashing. “It is incomplete,” Fachal said. “He never interviewed me.”
With the case due to be heard by the Supreme Court, Terry Collingsworth, who represents the Argentines, said Daimler could stop the lawsuit immediately by publicly acknowledging its responsibility in the disappearances and seeking to make amends.
“When the plaintiffs first approached Daimler, they just wanted the company to acknowledge its actions and, as a gesture of atonement, fund a workers’ hospital in Buenos Aires,” he said.
“They’re not looking to become millionaires,” he added. “But Daimler has fought this every step of the way.”