NEW YORK -- For the people of Sudan, a case moving through the courts holds great potential -- a lawsuit that says a Canadian company aided in genocide in its pursuit of oil.
But winning in a court half a world away will depend on how many people will be able to join in.
A federal judge recently limited the scope of the 2001 suit brought by the Presbyterian Church of Sudan against
The 2d US Circuit Court of Appeals will decide by the end of this year whether to consider the class-action issue before the case goes to trial in January 2007.
The plaintiffs say class-action status is crucial to set the stage for a payout to Sudanese victims and to set a precedent for US courts to aid suffering people worldwide who cannot find relief in their own courts. The church brought the case in the United States because the American courts are often a route for genocide cases.
Without it, ''thousands of victims will be effectively denied any opportunity to pursue legal redress for acts of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes," said Beth Van Schaack, assistant professor at the Santa Clara University School of Law. She submitted court papers on behalf of human rights groups.
The suit says Talisman, Canada's biggest independent oil and gas exploration and production company, joined Sudan in ethnic cleansing, killings, war crimes, property confiscation, enslavement, kidnapping, and rape.
The plaintiffs allege Talisman supplied the Sudanese military with money, logistics, fuel, vehicles, and accommodations as Sudan sought to depopulate 142 villages near oil fields by attacking them with bombers and helicopter gunships from 1999 through 2002. The plaintiffs -- victims of aerial attacks -- say Talisman aided genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity.
Talisman did not respond to requests seeking comment, but company lawyers adamantly denied the allegations in court papers.
The attacks occurred amid a two-decade civil war pitting the government, led by Arab Muslims who dominate the north, against rebels fighting for greater autonomy and a greater share of the country's wealth in the mainly black Christian and animist south. The conflict has reportedly caused more than 2 million deaths, primarily from war-induced famine and disease.
In a Sept. 20 ruling, US District Judge Denise Cote rejected the class certification request, saying the proposed class is not sufficiently cohesive. She noted that at least 142 separate incidents involved in the suit occurred over more than four years in a territory of many hundreds of square miles.
In a telephone interview, Van Schaack said that winning class-action status for the case might in the future ''force companies to think twice before they let the host government provide security or workers who might be subject to forced labor."
Among groups that Van Schaack represents in the case are the Center for Constitutional Rights, a nonprofit organization that has litigated significant international human rights cases for 25 years, and the Allard K. Lowenstein International Human Rights Clinic at Yale Law School which conducts research for international tribunals.