Ethnic Kurds file class action in Baltimore against chemical makers BEN MOOK mddailyrecord April 9, 2009

Ethnic Kurds file class action in Baltimore against chemical makers
Daily Record Assistant Business Editor
April 9, 2009 5:32 PM
Five survivors of the 1988 poison gas attacks of ethnic Kurds in Iraq have filed a class action lawsuit in Maryland claiming three American companies and the government of Iraq violated the Geneva Convention by using mustard and nerve gasses to kill tens of thousands of people.

Filed in U.S. District Court in Baltimore, the lawsuit says the companies supplied the regime of former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein with the chemical precursors and compounds needed to make the poison gases used in the six-month long “Operation Anfal.”

One of the companies, Alcolac Inc., was headquartered in Baltimore at the time of the attacks but is now defunct. Some of its assets were acquired by a French firm, Rhodia Inc., which is mentioned in the complaint but not named as a defendant.

A spokesman for Rhodia, David Klucsik, said Alcolac was not acquired until 1989 - by a predecessor to Rhodia called Rhone-Poulenc. Rhodia, the chemicals arm of Rhone-Poulenc was spun off in 1998.

"Rhodia did not exist until 1998," Klucsik said. "And, Rhone-Poulenc had no awareness of the allegations against Alcolac because the acquisition didn't occur until 1989."

Kenneth McCallion of New York, the lead attorney in the case, told The Associated Press he filed the complaint in Maryland because all three companies have operations there and because Alcolac pleaded guilty in 1989 to knowingly violating export laws by shipping a mustard-gas ingredient that ultimately went to Iran.

The lawsuit accuses the companies — Alcolac; West Chester, Pa.-based VWR International LLC; and Thermo Fisher Scientific Inc. of Waltham, Mass. — of selling lab materials and chemicals used in the manufacture of chemical weapons. Valerie Collado, spokeswoman for VWR International, said the company does not comment on pending litigation.

The plaintiffs claim the use of mustard and nerve gases during the attacks is a clear violation of the Geneva Convention of 1925.

“The ban on the use of chemical weapons in warfare was respected even during the depths of World War II, when only Nazi Germany had sarin nerve gas,” the complaint says.

Attempt at genocide

According to New York-based Human Rights Watch, Operation Anfal was an attempt at genocide of part of the Kurdish people in northern Iraq. The group said its investigation revealed that during Anfal — Arabic for “the spoils” — tens of thousands of ordinary Kurdish citizens were executed or disappeared. In addition, some 2,000 villages were destroyed, displacing hundreds of thousands of people.

The Nashville-based Kurdish National Congress of North America, also a plaintiff in the case, has been working for years to build the case against the defendants and find a lawyer willing to tackle it, according to Dr. Kirmanj Gundi.

Gundi, president of the Kurdish National Congress, said they never considered giving up, even though more than 20 years have passed since the attacks.

“We’re doing this on the behalf of the tens of thousands of victims of the Anfal attacks,” Gundi said. “We still have wounded people in Kurdistan — the impact of the chemical attacks still affects the lives of people to this day.

“This will remain with our people for decades to come,” he added.

Burying the dead

One of those who lived through the attacks was Meran S. Abdullah, 34, of Nashville. In 1988, Abdullah lived with his family in Ekmole, a village near the Turkish border that was under the control of Kurdish forces, known as the Peshmerga.

On his last day in Ekmole, Abdullah said Iraqi airplanes bombed the village. And, while bombings were not uncommon, it became apparent that this time it was a chemical attack.

As his mother, father and older brother stayed behind to gather personal effects, Abdullah and others headed to higher ground in the mountains nearby.

He said his parents and brother were killed in the attack, their bodies found near a creek with suitcases still in their hands.

After burying the dead, Abdullah and others hiked to a village on the Turkish border. Eventually, the refugees were let into Turkey.

Abdullah said they did not attempt to go back to Ekmole after that.

“The Iraqi Army was after us, trying to kill us with tanks, planes and chemical bombs,” he said. “It was either stay there, or go back and die.”

He said while he hopes that victims of the attack will be compensated for damages, his main goal is to help raise awareness about the horrors of Operation Anfal and its long-lasting impact on the Kurdish people.

“It doesn’t matter how long ago it happened, or how young I was,” Abdullah said. “Things like this, you can never ever forget.”