Oil Execs’ Massive War Crimes Trial Starts in Sweden

Published: 05 September 2023

Ian Lundin Trial SwedenOil executive Ian Lundin speaking to reporters before the start of the trial in the Stockholm District Court. (Photo: Ola Westerberg)

By Ola Westerberg

After a 13-years-long investigation, two oil executives eventually went Tuesday on trial in Stockholm, Sweden, for abetting grave war crimes committed more than 20 years ago when a consortium led by their company searched for oil in South Sudan.

Prosecutors described twelve such war crimes, allegedly abetted by demands of Swedish company Lundin Oil’s former chairman, Ian Lundin and the ex-CEO, Swiss national Alexandre Schneiter that government forces and its allied militias use force to gain control of an area called Block 5A in order to pave the way for their company’s operations there.

The case of is unique in several ways.

The trial is expected to last for 2.5 years – the longest in Swedish history. Rarely has any business executive been indicted anywhere in the world for a war crimes related offense. Both men deny the charges but face lengthy sentences if convicted.

“In May 1999, the Sudanese government through its military and allied militia groups (…) began undertaking offensive military operations in and near Block 5A with the aim of taking control of the area for oil exploration,” Head Prosecutor Henrik Attorps read out the accusations.

The purpose, he said, was to create the conditions for Lundin to operate in the area, which had not been under government control.

The operations carried on until 2003 and resulted in the “systematic attacks on civilians,” bombed, razed and looted villages, stolen or killed livestock, and the forced removal of the population, the prosecutors argue. Thousands were killed and many more were forced to leave their homes.

There are 32 plaintiffs in the case, none of who were present the first day.

“Finally,” counsel for the injured party and former Minister of Justice, Thomas Bodström told OCCRP about how he felt about the trial starting. “My clients have been waiting for almost 25 years and many of them thought this would never happen.”

Bodström’s colleague Percy Bratt pointed out how principally important the case is: “It sends a strong signal to the business community on how to behave.”

Prosecutors also claim approximately US$240 million in forfeiture of criminal benefits from the remaining part of the Lundin corporation, a business entity called Orrön Energy. The company refutes the claim.

The trial is in effect a war crimes tribunal in scope and principle. The war in then Sudan has never been the subject of any trials whatsoever. To be able to apply international law (the Geneva Conventions) to the case, the prosecution must first prove that there was an actual war in legal terms, in this case an internal armed conflict between regular and irregular armies. Sweden applies universal jurisdiction for war crimes.

The high profile status of the case is also because former Prime Minister Carl Bildt was a board member of Lundin at the time. Bildt has defended the company’s actions, but is not a suspect. However, he will be called to testify.

“We look forward to defending ourselves in court. We believe we will get a fair trial. The allegations are completely false,” Lundin told reporters before entering the courtroom, underscoring that his company had followed the highest ethical standards and had been “a force for good” in Sudan.

Lundin’s defense lawyer Torgny Wettergren completely dismissed the indictment.

“The two and a half years that we will spend in the district court will be a terrible waste of time and resources that the court could have used for other purposes. The prosecution has no chance of success because the charges are based on allegations that are not supported by the investigation. It is a mystery why the prosecution is pursuing this case,” Wettergren told OCCRP.

In the courtroom, he claimed that every single aspect of the indictment was inaccurate and much too vague. He even refuted that international law was applicable, arguing that the fighting between regular forces such as the Sudanese army and southern Sudanese guerrillas did not take place in Block 5A. In this case, “opposing armed groups from the Nuer community fought each other,” he claimed.

He also made a point of the alleged lack of evidence in the investigation tying his client to actual war criminals and their specific actions. Therefore, he said, there could have been no abetting.

The defense lawyer also made a point of what he argued did not make sense in the allegations.

“By no means did any armed operations benefit the oil exploration, on the contrary,” Wettergren said. Also, the civilians were not a threat at all to the company’s operations.

Bodström, counsel for the injured party, thought the lawyer’s line of argument was over the top.

“He would have been more believable if he had admitted to some circumstances in the investigation,” Bodström said.