Sudanese Victim Tells Swedish Court of Horror in Oil Execs’ War Crimes Case

Published: 28 May 2024

Pastor James Kuong NinrewPastor James Kuong Ninrew in Stockholm court (Photo: Ola Westerberg)

By Ola Westerberg

First came the bombers, then the helicopter gunships, and finally the ground troops to clear the villages of residents.

That is how the Sudanese army enabled Lundin Oil’s exploration, according to the first victim to appear in a Stockholm court in the landmark trial against two top executives of the Swedish corporation.

Lundin Oil’s former chairman, Swede Ian Lundin, and the ex-CEO, Swiss national Alexandre Schneiter, stand trial for abetting grave war crimes allegedly committed from 1999 to 2003, when a consortium led by their company searched for oil in an area called Block 5A, which had not been under government control, the prosecutors argue.

The area where Pastor James Kuong Ninrew lived in Unity State, in what was then Sudan and is now South Sudan, used to be a peaceful rural community of cattle herders and farmers. But in 1998, people from the north started fleeing their homes and began flooding his village, Koch, Ninrew told the court. For two years, they were pouring into his Presbyterian church, looking for safety.

The Sudanese army and its allied militias “would come with high-altitude Antonov planes to survey the area. Then they would bomb that area where they suspected there was any population.”

“When that stage was finished, they would come with helicopter gunships to the same area that was bombed, survey if there were any people left, and kill them. Ground troops would follow, consisting of the Sudan armed forces and militias, and clear the area,” Ninrew said when questioned by prosecutors in the packed Stockholm courtroom.

Bit by bit, the army advanced southwards in this way toward Koch and built the road that Lundin Oil needed to set up camp and look for lucrative reserves, the priest recalled, echoing a central aspect of the indictment.

Ninrew described how he hid in a bunker the night the fighting eventually reached his village and the army’s Antonov planes started dropping their crude barrel bombs. During that night, and the following morning, 18 people were killed and many more were wounded, he said.

Ninrew thought it was the right thing to do as a priest to stay as long as possible despite the fighting, against the advice from his superiors in the Presbyterian church. He later came to regret that decision since others chose to stay with him. “Some people would not have died if I had made a different decision,” Ninrew told the court.

Several of his relatives were killed, including his mother-in-law, and he lost property too. Eventually, he fled. “Because I left, of course, my cattle were taken too,” Ninrew added.

Despite his horrific account, Pastor James Kuong Ninrew said he was happy to be able to tell his story to the Stockholm District Court.

“I have been waiting for this moment since this case started, almost 20 years now. Some other people have been waiting for this moment and they have not been able to come. Some have passed on. So I consider myself to be lucky to be here,” Ninrew told OCCRP after the trial session.

He said he hoped that other companies will behave better in the future thanks to the Lundin case.

“The ultimate goal is for justice to be served,” said Ninrew, who is the first of 32 plaintiffs to take the stand in the mastodon case.

James Kuong Ninrew’s firsthand account of the civil war in the area will be followed by several dozens of others. The trial started in September 2023 and is scheduled to go on for two and a half years until 2026. It is the longest in Swedish history.

The case also attracts attention because Sweden’s former Prime Minister Carl Bildt used to be a board member for Lundin Oil. He has been called to testify but is not a suspect.

Another consortium partner, OMV in Austria, has recently also come under scrutiny because of the joint venture with Lundin Oil in Sudan.

According to the Swedish indictment, the oil execs were aware that 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.”

Thousands of people were killed and many more displaced. Villages were razed, and livestock stolen or killed. Ian Lundin and Alexandre Schneiter face lengthy prison sentences if convicted. They deny the charges. The defense team also argues that the indictment is far too vague and does not tie its clients to the alleged crimes.

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.

Alexandre Schneiter’s defense attorney, Per E. Samuelson, admitted that Ninrew’s story was heartbreaking but said it had factual errors and questioned its credibility. “It is not consistent with what he has previously told when questioned by the police,” Samuelson told OCCRP. The defense will get its opportunity to cross-examine the plaintiff later in the week.