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Rio Tinto wins end to human rights abuse lawsuit in U.S.

A Rio Tinto logo is displayed on the front of a wall panel during a news conference in Sydney November 29, 2012. REUTERS/Tim Wimborne
A Rio Tinto logo is displayed on the front of a wall panel during a news conference in Sydney November 29, 2012. REUTERS/Tim Wimborne

By Jonathan Stempel

(Reuters) - Benefiting from a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision, Rio Tinto Plc has won the dismissal of a nearly 13-year-old U.S. lawsuit accusing the Anglo-Australian mining company of complicity in human rights abuses on the South Pacific island of Bougainville.

Friday's ruling by a majority of an 11-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ends litigation begun in 2000.

Roughly 10,000 current and former Bougainville residents had sought to hold Rio Tinto responsible for human rights violations and thousands of deaths linked to polluting a copper and gold mine it once ran.

The ruling follows the Supreme Court's April 17 decision in Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum Co, where the justices limited the sweep of a 1789 U.S. law that lawyers had used for roughly three decades to fight human rights abuses worldwide.

Five justices said the Alien Tort Statute was meant to cover international law violations occurring in the United States, and that violations elsewhere must "touch and concern" U.S. territory "with sufficient force" to displace that presumption.

The Bougainville residents alleged that after workers in 1988 began to sabotage the Rio Tinto mine, the company goaded Papua New Guinea's government to exact retribution and conspired to impose a blockade, leading to thousands of civilian deaths.

On April 22, the Supreme Court threw out an earlier 9th Circuit ruling that let the lawsuit proceed, and asked it to revisit the matter in light of Kiobel.

Steve Berman, a lawyer for the Bougainville plaintiffs, did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

He had asked the 9th Circuit to send the case back to the Los Angeles district court so that his clients could try to proceed with other claims, "sans invocation of the ATS."

Kiobel was also cited this week by a Virginia federal judge who dismissed a lawsuit accusing defense contractor CACI International Inc of conspiring to torture detainees a decade ago at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.

The judge in that case said that because the alleged abuse occurred outside the United States, he lacked jurisdiction to consider claims by four former detainees. They plan to appeal.

The case is Sarei et al v. Rio Tinto Plc et al, 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, No. 02-56256.

(Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; Editing by Bernard Orr)

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