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African refugees alleging rights abuses get go-ahead to sue Canadian mining firm

October 06, 2016 - 5:31 PM

VANCOUVER - Foreign workers who have accused a Vancouver-based company of human rights abuses at an African mine will have their case heard in the Canadian legal system.

In a judgment released Thursday, the Supreme Court of British Columbia gave the go-ahead for three refugees to proceed with a civil lawsuit against Nevsun Resources (TSX:NSU), which owns a controlling interest in the Bisha gold mine in the tiny East African country of Eritrea.

Joe Fiorante, one of the lawyers representing the group, said this is the first time foreign claimants have been able to file a lawsuit in Canada against a Canadian company over allegations of human rights abuses that took place abroad.

"From the plaintiffs' perspective, it is a big victory," he said in an interview.

"For us, this is a green light to proceed with the case on the merits, and this will give our clients the chance to pursue the allegations in court and a chance to vindicate their rights."

None of the allegations has been proven in court.

Nevsun did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Earlier in the day, the company issued a statement saying it's studying the decision and is considering filing an appeal.

"The judgment makes no findings with respect to the plaintiffs' allegations, including whether any of them were in fact at the Bisha Mine," the statement reads.

The company said it is confident that its subsidiary operates the mine according to international standards of governance, workplace conditions, health, safety and human rights.

The judgment dismissed the workers' application to have their allegations heard as a single case, and instructed them instead to file three separate claims.

Fiorante called that element of the ruling "surmountable," adding that his legal team plans on filing dozens more claims from other former mine employees.

The three men involved in the original case, Gize Araya, Kesete Fshazion and Mihretab Tekle, have since fled Eritrea, though none are in Canada, Fiorante said. He added that the plan is for them to be in the country by the time the case goes to trial, which could take several years.

The original notice of claim filed with the court almost two years ago contends Nevsun entered into a commercial relationship with Eritrea, a repressive, one-party state.

"During the period of forced labour at Bisha, the plaintiffs were subjected to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment as well as harsh working conditions including long hours, malnutrition and forced confinement for little pay," the document alleges.

"They worked under the constant threat of physical punishment, torture and imprisonment."

The document alleges Nevsun was aware or must have been aware by the time construction began at the mine in 2008 of credible, published reports of the abuses, and by entering into the relationship, Nevsun allegedly facilitated forced labour, crimes against humanity and other abuses of human rights.

— Follow @gwomand on Twitter

News from © The Canadian Press, 2016
The Canadian Press

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