Why are villagers in the Aceh province of Indonesia–or their lawyers–worrying about contributions from Exxon Mobil to George W. Bush and the Republicans?

A year ago, the Washington-based International Labor Rights Fund filed a lawsuit against the energy behemoth, claiming the Mobil half of the conglomerate in the 1990s paid and supported Indonesian military troops that committed human rights abuses in the war-torn province. Representing eleven unnamed residents of Aceh who say they or their husbands were brutalized by troops underwritten by Exxon Mobil, the ILRF maintained that under the Alien Tort Claims Act and Torture Victims Protection Act, the oil company and its Indonesian subsidiary could be held liable for the murder, torture, sexual crimes, and kidnapping conducted by these soldiers. As part of a joint venture with Pertamina, Indonesia’s state-owned oil and gas company, Exxon Mobil–which owns 35 percent of this enterprise–operates a major natural gas facility in this province in northern Sumatra, where Acehnese separatists have been fighting Indonesian troops for decades. In the 1990s, Indonesian troops in the area committed extensive abuses, according to human rights organizations. Over 1000 people were killed, tortured or disappeared, reports Human Rights Watch, which noted, “Thousands of Acehnese were detained without charge, often for years at a time, in military camps; many never returned.”

The ILRF suit says that, per an agreement with General Suharto, the former strongman-leader of Indonesia, Mobil paid the Indonesian military for providing security for its facilities there. These troops, the ILRF contends, picked up one of the plaintiffs, held him at a structure at a Mobil plant, and for three months tortured him. Before they released him, the soldiers showed him a large pile of human heads. Another plaintiff claims he, too, was tortured by Indonesian soldiers at a building inside the company’s compound. The other plaintiffs offer similar accounts of abuse.

Exxon Mobil argues it has not “in any way directly caused, intended, conspired to commit, or participated in any of the” acts of brutality alleged and that there is “no basis” under US law for this lawsuit. When the suit was initiated, the president of Pertamina denied the joint venture had financed troops in Indonesia. He did concede it provided health, housing and transportation facilities for the military. But in 2000, Kontras, an Indonesian human rights group, said it had conducted an investigation that determined at least 17 military and police stations in Aceh with a personnel total of 1000 were subsidized by Exxon Mobil. Last August, the Asian edition of Time published an article noting that Exxon Mobil does pay the soldiers that protect its sites and that townspeople “literally lineup to tell stories of abuse and murders committed by the troops they call Exxon’s Army.” (In 1998, several Indonesian human rights groups accused Mobil of being “responsible for human rights abuses” committed by the military and maintained it provided logistical support to the army, including earth-moving equipment used to dig mass graves. That year, Business Week reported that the tales told by Acehnese who survived military abuse “raise questions about what Mobil knew and when.”)

The lawsuit against Exxon Mobil had been moving along slowly (as is normal) in a Washington federal court but took a turn that could threaten its continuation. At a hearing in April, federal district judge Louis Oberdorfer asked the oil company’s attorneys whether the State Department had expressed an interest in the matter. Martin Weinstein, an Exxon Mobil lawyer, said that “this is a very difficult time in Indonesian-American relations” because al Qaeda fighters are residing in that large Muslim nation. He argued that if the judge allowed the lawsuit to proceed, Oberdorfer “would be forced to judge the conduct of the Indonesian government, an ally with whom America’s relationship has never been more important, in order to determine whether the allegations in this complaint are those of murder or legitimate warfare against fundamentalist insurgents trying to break a country apart by bombings and other terrorist activities.” That is, Exxon Mobil was saying the judge might end up interfering with the war on terrorism. Weinstein suggested Oberdorfer contact the State Department and ask for its advice on how to handle the case.

Lawyers for the victims opposed this. “If at any point the State Department believed the litigation harmed the foreign policy interests of the United States,” they argued, “it would have made its views known to the Court.” Earlier this year, the State Department, in another case, informed a federal court that its pursuit of a lawsuit involving human rights abuses in Papua New Guinea would harm US relations with that country, and the court dismissed the case.

The ILRF’s legal team also worried about Exxon Mobil’s influence in the Bush administration. It filed a motion with exhibits noting that Exxon Mobil was the second largest campaign contributor, after Enron, in the current election cycle (giving almost entirely to Republicans); that James Rouse of the company’s Washington office donated $100,000 to the George W. Bush inauguration; and that the company pressured the White House to oust the head of an international climate panel (and the White House did decide to oppose that fellow). “This is a bad precedent,” says Terry Collingsworth, executive director of the ILRF. “If a human rights case has to go to the State Department, that will give defense lawyers another tool to slow it down or dismiss it.”

Still, Oberdorfer took Exxon Mobil’s suggestion and wrote to the department: “Out of an abundance of caution, in the tense times in which we are living, I inquire whether the Department of State has an opinion (non-binding) as to whether adjudication of this case at this time would impact adversely on interests of the United States.” He asked for the department to answer by July 1.

As of yet, there’s no sign from the administration how the State Department might reply. Career officials at the department, the plaintiffs’ lawyers speculate, are not likely to be sympathetic to the oil company. In 2000, the State Department collaborated with human rights outfits and major energy and mining companies to develop a code of conduct for businesses working in developing nations where governments might engage in human rights abuses. The prominent hold-out was Exxon Mobil, which refused to sign the code–a fact not forgotten by the department’s career lawyers. But the decision will probably be rendered at a higher–more political–level. Several human rights organizations and the United Steelworkers of America have requested that State Department not intervene in the case.

So before a federal court can determine whether Exxon Mobil indeed supported troops that engaged in horrific abuses and bears responsibility for that, another important matter must be decided: can a transnational company accused of corporate-sponsored terrorism hide behind the war on terrorism?