BNP Paribas must face lawsuit over Sudanese genocide, US judge rules

FILE PHOTO: Logo of BNP Paribas on a bank building in Paris

By Jonathan Stempel

NEW YORK (Reuters) - BNP Paribas was ordered by a U.S. judge on Thursday to face a lawsuit accusing the French bank of helping Sudan's government commit genocide between 1997 and 2011 by providing banking services that violated American sanctions.

U.S. District Judge Alvin Hellerstein in Manhattan found "too many facts" showing a relationship between BNP Paribas' financing and human rights abuses perpetrated by the government.

He called it premature to decide whether it was reasonable to hold the bank responsible for causing some of those abuses, which according to the plaintiffs included murder, mass rape and torture, or whether it could have foreseen them.

The proposed class action was brought by U.S. residents who had fled non-Arab indigenous black African communities in South Sudan, Darfur, and the Nuba Mountains in central Sudan. They are seeking unspecified damages.

A spokesman for BNP Paribas declined to comment.

The bank had in 2014 agreed to plead guilty and pay an $8.97 billion penalty to settle U.S. charges it transferred billions of dollars for Sudanese, Iranian and Cuban entities subject to economic sanctions.

While many banks have been accused of aiding in human rights abuses by providing banking services, BNP Paribas' guilty plea was the first by a global bank to large-scale violations of U.S. economic sanctions, the Department of Justice said at the time.

Hellerstein said the bank's admission that its employees recognized its role in giving Sudanese entities access to the U.S. banking system meant it could not now argue differently.

The U.S. government recognized the Sudanese conflict as a genocide in 2004.

Thursday's decision came in a lawsuit originally filed in 2016.

A different judge dismissed the case in 2018, but a federal appeals court revived it in 2019.

Hellerstein dismissed claims for punitive damages, saying they were not available under applicable Swiss law. The other judge had ruled that Swiss law governed BNP Paribas' liability.

The case is Kashef et al v BNP Paribas et al, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York, No. 16-03228.

(Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; Editing by Sandra Maler)