US court hears suit over Rio Tinto Papua NG mine
* Rio Tinto lawyer says "all the facts" are abroad
* Plaintiffs say 18th-century U.S. law lets them sue
* Courts wrestle with recent human rights lawsuits
By Dan Levine
SAN FRANCISCO, Sept 21 (Reuters) - Mining giant Rio Tinto Plc (RIO.L: Cotización) (RIO.AX: Cotización) tried to persuade an appeals court on Tuesday to dismiss a long running human rights lawsuit, one of a number of cases to test the reach of U.S. judges over corporations operating on foreign soil.
The lawsuit, a proposed class action, involves Rio Tinto's operations on the island of Bougainville in the South Pacific nation of Papua New Guinea, where it once ran one of the world's largest mines for copper and gold.
According to the lawsuit, Rio Tinto decimated the island and forced its native workers to live in "slave like" conditions. When workers sabotaged the mine, Rio Tinto allegedly goaded the Papua New Guinea government into exacting bloody retribution against residents of Bougainville, court documents said.
Current and former residents of Bougainville are seeking punitive damages and disgorgement of all profits earned from the mine under an 18th century law which allows foreigners to sue in U.S. courts in some matters.
The Rio Tinto case has ping-ponged between the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals and a federal trial court for eight years. The hearing on Tuesday was the second before an 11-judge appellate panel, after a lower court allowed some of the claims against Rio Tinto to proceed. Rio Tinto shuttered the Papua New Guinea mine in 1989. Continuación...