Fresh Del Monte has claimed it should not be held liable for a civil lawsuit alleging killing, rape and violence by security guards at its Kenyan pineapple farm because it is domiciled in the Cayman Islands.
In the high court in Thika on Thursday, lawyers for the company’s Kenyan subsidiary, Del Monte Kenya, also applied to have a case against the farm struck out altogether.
A civil claim was filed in Kenya on 30 December against Fresh Del Monte and Del Monte Kenya by a group of human rights organisations on behalf of 10 individuals.
It describes “conflicts with the security personnel deployed by Del Monte, who assault, beat, torture, maim, rape and/or kill the trespassers” on the 40 sq km farm that sprawls across three counties.
The court hearing followed revelations in the Guardian that representatives of Del Monte Kenya were accused of offering bribes in an attempt to cover up the circumstances in which four men died after going to steal pineapples from its farm in December. The report was part of an investigation with the Bureau of Investigative Journalism into allegations of violence and killings by the farm’s guards.
A Kenyan court will now have to determine next month whether Fresh Del Monte can be sued in the country before hearing a petition filed against the company and its Kenyan subsidiary for human rights violations, including murder and the torture of thieves caught stealing pineapples from its farm.
Mwangi Macharia, a lawyer for the African Centre for Corrective and Preventive Action (ACCPA), one of the organisations bringing the case, said outside court: “It is very irresponsible for Del Monte to tell us they are based in the Cayman Islands and they cannot be sued … but they can grow pineapples in Africa.”
A Fresh Del Monte lawyer, Samir Inamdar, argued in court filings that Del Monte Kenya was a “wholly owned Kenyan registered subsidiary” and that the parent company was “incorporated in George Town, Cayman Islands outside the jurisdiction of this honourable court”.
Kiragu Kimani, a lawyer for Del Monte Kenya, argued the claim did not meet the legal standard, an issue he said should be decided on before any further claimants could be added. In a document submitted to the court, Del Monte Kenya argued the case should be struck out as it was “without basis, scandalous, frivolous and vexatious”.
Families of victims allegedly attacked by Del Monte guards thronged outside the court in Thika during the Thursday court session. A heavy presence of uniformed police officers kept some of the relatives outside the compound, even as it rained heavily.
Lawyers representing the claimants raised the issue of the police presence before Lady Justice Florence Muchemi, who said it would be investigated.
Macharia Kamau of ACCPA told the court: “This morning, we were met with an overwhelming and disproportionate deployment of police officers who had barricaded the road as far as Thika highway. I counted at least one lorry and six police vehicles at the entrance to Thika town. There was a second contingent at the main entrance to the Thika law courts and they are very heavily armed and there is a third group outside the court. Fifty of our clients are standing in the rain due to the heavy police presence.”
He added: “My clients are peaceful, they have been brutalised, that’s why they are in court and it will be compounding their brutalisation to overwhelm them with heavily armed police when they seek justice.”
Roda Wayua Kimeu, whose son’s body was one of four recovered from a river by the farm over Christmas, was among the relatives who attended court. While her son’s case is not part of the claim, she is one of many hoping Del Monte could be made liable for other allegations of violence.
Benjamin Kilule, whose brother Francis Ngoki Kilule also died after the December incident, also attended the hearing and said it made him hopeful, despite the fact that his brother’s case is not included. He said: “At least we can see something is going on in the pursuit for justice.”