April 8, 2009 / 10:47 PM / 11 years ago

U.S. judge rules apartheid suits can proceed

NEW YORK (Reuters) - A U.S. judge ruled on Wednesday that lawsuits seeking monetary damages can continue against five large companies accused of aiding South Africa’s former apartheid system of racial segregation.

But U.S. District Judge Shira Scheindlin also dismissed claims against banks UBS AG and Barclays Bank Plc and electronics maker Fujitsu Ltd.

“Corporate defendants accused of merely doing business with the apartheid Government of South Africa have been dismissed,” Scheindlin said in her ruling.

The judge allowed at least some claims made by tens of thousands of South African plaintiffs in two lawsuits in U.S. federal court to proceed against automakers General Motors Corp, Ford Motor Co and Daimler AG as well as International Business Machines and Rheinmetall AG.

The plaintiffs are seeking unspecified monetary damages against companies that they say helped support South Africa’s former racial system in which a minority white government oppressed a majority black population.

The decision was hailed as a victory by attorneys for the plaintiffs. Their lawsuits accuse the companies of aiding and abetting the apartheid system, torture and extrajudicial killings.

The lawsuits argue that the automakers knew their vehicles were being used by South African forces to violently suppress protesters. They also argue that IBM and Fujitsu knew their computers were being used by South Africa’s white minority government to help strip black citizens of their rights.

Scheindlin disagreed with arguments made by the companies such as IBM’s contention that it was not the company’s place to tell clients how to use its products.

“That level of willful blindness in the face of crimes in violation of the law of nations cannot defeat an otherwise clear showing of knowledge that the assistance IBM provided would directly and substantially support apartheid,” she said.

Apartheid ended in 1994 when South Africa held its first all-race elections, bringing Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress to power.

The U.S. and South African governments supported the companies’ efforts to get the complaints dismissed, as did Germany, Switzerland, Canada and Britain. Supporters of the lawsuits included South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu, a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize.

More than 50 major corporations were initially sued in 2002, but the complaints were amended last year with fewer companies targeted.

Lawyers for the companies did not immediately return calls seeking comment.

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