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Socfin lawsuits (re defamation by Green Scenery, Sierra Leone)

Snapshot:

Since 2012, Socfin has filed several lawsuits against environmental NGO Green Scenery in Sierra Leone alleging defamation. The suits are in response to Green Scenery’s reporting of human rights abuses on Socfin’s palm oil plantation in Sahn Malen Chiefdom.


Factual Background

In 2011, Socfin, a multinational agribusiness group headquartered in Luxembourg, obtained a 50 year lease for 6,500 ha of fertile land in Sahn Malen Chiefdom in Pujehan District, in the south of Sierra Leone to cultivate palm oil. Locals have strongly opposed Socfin’s presence, because of the lack of proper consultation in the land deal, the company’s lack of transparency, and inadequate compensation for land owners. In October 2011, protestors gathered to contest the land deal resulting in 40 protestors being arrested.

Since 2011, tensions between Socfin and the surrounding community have heightened, with increasing reports of grave human rights abuses taking place in the region. Complaints include pollution of the community’s water sources, violent clashes between Socfin security forces and community members, and excessive force used during police raids against the community.

The NGO Green Scenery released several reports which highlight allegations of the inadequate compensation, corruption, and pressure on land owners to give up their land.

Legal Theory

Socfin has filed several defamation lawsuits against Green Scenery and its Executive Director following reports on the human rights implications of Socfin’s activities in the area.

In most of the suits, Socfin asks the Sierra Leonean court to order Green Scenary to apologise, pay damages, and stop publishing information that the company may consider defamatory.

Legal Proceeding

In 2013, in response to two 2012 reports titled, “Land Owner Protests against Socfin’s Operation as Police Intimidation Continues” and “Understanding Land Investment Deals in Africa- Socfin Land Investment in Sierra Leone” which highlighted Socfin’s activites in the Malen Chiefdom, Socfin filed a complaint against the NGO Green Scenery, alleging defamation.

This suit was challenged by Green Scenery, but was not pursued further by Socfin. The matter was sent out of court.

In 2019, Socfin filed a defamation complaint against Green Scenery in response to a new article they published regarding the human rights implications of Socfin’s palm oil plantation on the local population.

In July 2019, Socfin sought a default judgment from the court, which was allegedly never served on the defendant or his lawyer.

In November 2019, Socfin claimed that Green Scenery was in breach of the default judgment, arguing the court had restrained the NGO from publishing information relating to the operations of Socfin.

On 7 November 2019, the High Court of Sierra Leone adjourned the contempt of court hearing brought against Green Scenery, after Socfin failed to appear in court. Green Scenery requested the judgment that led to the contempt charges be set aside as they allege they were never properly served. Additionally, they requested that the court review the legitimacy of the July 2019 ruling.

On 22 November 2019, the High Court of Sierra Leone adjourned the contempt of court hearing for a second time.

 

News Items

- “Socfin vs. Green Scenery contempt case adjourned again,” Politico SL, 22 Nov 2019
- “Landgrabbing by SOCFIN in Sierra Leone-documentation,” Fian Belgium
- “Sierra Leone environmentalist fights contempt charges in High Court,” Farm Land Grab, 9 Nov 2019
- “SOCFIN Using Intimidating to Silence Local Opposition to African Land Grab,” Oakland Institute, 3 Jun 2013
- “Understanding land investment deals in Africa: Socfin land investment in Sierra Leone,” The Oakland Institute, Apr 2012

Socfin

- Socfin’s response to report titled “Land Grabbing for palm Oil in Sierra Leonne,” Apr 2019, UN Reports

- “Report of the Special Rapporteurs on the implications for human rights of the environmentally sound management and disposal of hazardous substances and wastes on his mission to Sierra Leone,” Note by the Secretariat for the Human Rights Council, 28 Sep 2018

Court Documents

- Complaint by SOCFIN against Green Scenery for Defamation, 2013

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Article
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Author: 11.11.11, CNCD-11.11.11, FIAN Belgium, SOS Faim Belgique et SOS Faim Luxembourg

« Des ONG de solidarité Nord-Sud et de défense des droits humains dénoncent les nouvelles poursuites-bâillons du groupe agro-industriel SOCFIN », 5 décembre 2019

SOCFIN est un groupe agro-industriel spécialisé dans la culture de palmiers à huile et d’hévéa (caoutchouc). Le groupe est contrôlé par l’homme d’affaire belge Hubert Fabri (54,2% des parts) et par le français Vincent Bolloré (39% des parts). Depuis plusieurs années, SOCFIN poursuit l’expansion de ses plantations dans plusieurs pays d’Afrique et d’Asie...

Ces impacts [sur les communautés concernées] ont été documentés dans de nombreux rapports d’ONG et articles de presse mais aussi par les instances des Nations Unies...Depuis dix ans près d’une trentaine de procédures en diffamation ont été lancées contre des ONG et journalistes...Bien que presque jamais couronnées de succès, ces procédures visent à intimider les ONG et journalistes, à les réduire au silence et à les fragiliser financièrement...

Les nouvelles plaintes pour calomnies, injures et violation de la vie privée sont portées par le groupe SOCFIN et par Hubert Fabri. Elles portent sur un rapport de l’ONG de droits humains FIAN Belgium en Sierra Leone, ainsi que sur une série de communiqués des ONG incriminées (11.11.11, CNCD-11.11.11, FIAN Belgium, SOS Faim Belgique et SOS Faim Luxembourg) et une action de sensibilisation...

Parallèlement à ces poursuites, les ONG ont été informées qu’une procédure pour diffamation a également été lancée par SOCFIN en Sierra Leone contre un défenseur des droits humains de l’ONG Green Scenery.

Les ONG poursuivies dénoncent ces tentatives d’intimidation, d’autant qu’elles ciblent personnellement leurs employé.e.s...

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Article
19 November 2019

Sierra Leone: Environmental rights group sued for defamation by multinational agribusiness firm

Author: Kemo Cham, Farmland Grab

‘Sierra Leone environmentalist fights contempt charges in High Court’ 9 November 2019

The High Court of Sierra Leone on Thursday adjourned a contempt of court hearing against the rights campaign group, Green Scenery, after the plaintiff, the multinational agribusiness firm SOCFIN failed to turn up in court. Justice Komba Kamanda adjourned the case to November 19th after a brief appearance of the defense on the first day of the hearing. It also followed an application by the Defense Counsel, Lawyer Emmanuel Saffa Abdulai, for a judgment that led to the contempt charges to be set aside. Abdulai is also seeking the court to ascertain the veracity of the ruling supposedly passed by a lower court against his client. Green Scenery, through its Executive Director Joseph Rahall, was initially sued for defamatory libel by SOCFIN in connection to the firm’s battle with campaigners over its operations in the southern region of the country.

In 2011 SOCFIN obtained a 50-year lease for 6, 500 ha of a fertile land in Sahn Malen Chiefdom in Pujehun District, where it cultivates palm oil for export. But it has always faced opposition from locals who accuse the company of destroying their livelihoods. They have organized themselves under a community-based rights defenders group called the Malen Affected Land Owners and Users Association (MALOA). Green Scenery, on the other hand, works on Environment Protection, Human rights, land governance Advocacy and sustainable Human Security. The organization has been working with MALOA in providing capacity building since its inception. SOCFIN was offended by a report done by Green Scenery earlier this year, which outlines the issues around the company’s operations. The report titled: ‘Land Grabbing for palm oil in Sierra Leone,’ looked at the human rights implications of SOCFIN’s activities.

…SOCFIN, according to Thursday’s proceeding, claimed that it published the outcome of the default judgment in national newspapers. But the defense counsel said the court couldn’t have published the outcome of such a ruling without informing the other party. Lawyer Pa Momoh Fofana, counsel for SOCFIN, would not comment on the issue because it is already in court. Abdulai is also representing 18 members of MALOA who were also scheduled to appear before a magistrate court in a separate case involving SOCFIN on the same day. MALOA is headed by Independent Member of Parliament, Sheika Musa Sama. The accused were arrested following a land conflict between aggrieved land owners and SOCFIN. That incident in January led to the death of two people.

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Article
25 July 2016

Sierra Leone: Socfin country director resigns; accuses govt. of surrendering its authority to NGOs

Author: Amadu Daramy, Global Times (Sierra Leone)

"Socfin Boss Resigns", 5 July 2016

The Country Director of Socfin Agricultural Company (SL) Limited, Gerben Haringsma...tendered in his letter of resignation to the Board of Directors of the company in Brussels, Belgium...In an exclusive interview with the Global Times...Mr. Haringsma said that, he was extremely pissed-off by NGOs’ allegations that, his company was engaged in land grabbing, slavery and forced labor in the Malen Chiefdom...[He] noted that, the government has surrendered its authority to NGOs. “The NGOs are destroying this country…No serious investor in the agribusiness sector will come to Sierra Leone again…The government has allowed NGOs (like Green Scenery and FIAN-Belgium) to give the country a bad name…I hope that in the long run the government will review the NGO policy and make it more responsible”.

[As related background, NGOs wrote a letter to Sierra Leone President, see the letter here; referring to background of the case here and Socfin's response to the letter is here]

 

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