SLAPP Suit in Suriname Shut Down

Refinery oil spill. PHOTO: ProBios.
Refinery oil spill. PHOTO: ProBios.

We are pleased to report that a strategic lawsuit against public participation (SLAPP) against an environmental NGO in Suriname was rejected!

A state-owned petroleum company brought defamation charges against Erlan Sleur and his organization ProBios, for speaking out about an oil spill Sleur alleged was caused by the company.

Sleur launched ProBios in 2009. Since then, the organization has investigated many environmental and human rights abuses in Suriname, including cases of mercury poisoning, the use of cyanide in small-scale gold mining, logging and mining in protected areas, and incineration of petrochemical waste. ProBios also conducts awareness campaigns about the effects of mercury contamination among Indigenous peoples, such as the Wayana.

In late 2022, Sleur began investigating an oil spill in the Suriname River next to an oil refinery owned by Staatsolie Maatschappij Suriname. Several days prior, a national TV broadcaster announced that an oil spill had been detected in the river, with no blame assigned or suspects identified.

Erlan Sleur, Chairman of ProBios, investigating the oil spill in the Suriname River. PHOTO: ProBios.

At an October 2022 press conference, Sleur spoke out about his findings and stated that it is reasonable to believe that the Staatsolie refinery was responsible for the incident as it was the only producer, transporter, and processor of crude oil in the country at that time.

Shortly after the conference, Staatsolie sued Sleur and ProBios and demanded a public apology and withdrawal of the allegations against the oil company.

Serena Muntslag-Essed, a local lawyer in Suriname, defended Sleur in the case. Muntslag-Essed requested assistance from ELAW regarding international case law and relevant international regulations that might be applicable to the case.

ELAW shared cases from Argentina, Brazil, the European Court of Human Rights, India, Malaysia, South Africa, and the United States, and collaborated with Essed on a legal strategy to defend Sleur and reveal that this was, in fact, a SLAPP suit meant to silence the company’s critics.

Helping lawyers defend against SLAPP suits is a key part of ELAW’s work Defending Defenders. SLAPPs are a misuse of the legal system that impose costs on organizations and individuals working to protect communities and the environment. Defendants must waste time and resources fighting against false charges aimed at damaging their reputation. SLAPPs can also have a chilling effect, dissuading other individuals and organizations from speaking out because they fear they will also be targeted.

We are pleased to report that the court rejected the oil company’s defamation claim, admonished it for making statements about its investigation into the spill without submitting evidence, and ordered it to pay the NGO’s defense costs!

“I had a great experience with ELAW. The information, case law, and regulations provided by the Law Team significantly contributed to winning the case,” says Essed.

“I would like to show my gratitude to our lawyer Serena Essed,” says Sleur. “She provided us with excellent legal assistance and showed her compassion, concern, and support for our work to protect nature. Naturally, our thanks also go to ELAW, especially attorneys Alejandra Serrano Pavón and Letícia Aleixo, who have made every effort to assist us well. In those moments, you feel the power and energy of working together for the common goal of protecting life on our beautiful planet from exploiters and greed. By winning this important environmental case in Suriname on behalf of nature, I feel very proud, but I realize that we have a long road to go, as pollution and greed will not be stopped by a few. We need to mobilize our communities.” 

We congratulate Essed and Sleur on defending against this spurious charge and applaud the court’s decision. NGOs play a critical role in holding companies and governments accountable for environmental and human rights abuses. They must be able to investigate and share their findings with the public.