He said an American court is the only place the Ogonis can seek accountability.

"Nigeria gets so much money from oil. There is no way the company will be held liable for anything in courts in Nigeria," Wiwa said. He now lives in Chicago, having been allowed into the United States as a political refugee.

In the most notorious incident of the crackdown, Nigeria's military dictatorship hanged author Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight other activists, sparking international outrage.

In 2009, Shell paid $15.5 million to settle a separate lawsuit filed in New York under the Alien Tort Statute and alleging that the oil giant was complicit in the executions of Saro-Wiwa and the others. The company did not admit it did anything wrong. Shell's Nigerian subsidiary ended its operations in the Ogoni region in 1993, although a pipeline still passes through the area.

Other cases pending in U.S. courts seek to hold accountable Chiquita Brands International for its relationship with paramilitary groups in Colombia; Exxon and Chevron for abuses in Indonesia and Nigeria, respectively; Britain-based mining concern Rio Tinto for allegedly aiding the Papua New Guinea government in a civil war; and several companies for their role in old racial apartheid system in South Africa.

Those companies, other than Chiquita, are among 15 multinational businesses that are supporting Shell in the Supreme Court.

In 2004, the high court warily endorsed some use of the Alien Tort Statute, saying the door "is still ajar subject to vigilant door keeping."

Another lurking issue has the potential to wipe out almost all lawsuits under the 1789 law. Rio Tinto has an appeal pending with the court that argues that the law never was intended to apply to conduct by a foreign government against its own citizens within its own borders. It is not clear whether the court will deal with that issue in the Nigeria case.

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