21 March 2007

The Bigios are challenging Coke over Egyptian lands

The US Supreme Court yesterday declined to consider a request by Coca-Cola Co. to halt a lawsuit brought against it by three Egyptian citizens living in Canada.

The court's decision lets stand a ruling by an appeals court that allows the lawsuit to proceed.

Montreal resident Refael Bigio is proceeding with his lawsuit against Coca-Cola Co. after the U.S. Supreme Court gave him the green light Monday to sue the beverage conglomerate for buying property in Egypt he says still belongs to his family.

Bigio, a 63-year-old grandfather, said his family's land and factories were confiscated by the Egyptian government in 1962 and the lawsuit, one of the first of its kind, could set a precedent, leading to other court battles brought by Jews seeking to recover assets seized in the Arab world.

"Coca-Cola knew certainly well that we are the owners of these assets and that we were expropriated because we are Jewish," Bigio said Monday from his office.

"I was horrified by their act ...They've abused all measures of common decency."

Nathan Lewin, Bigio's high-profile Washington lawyer, said Coca-Cola is trespassing on his client's property and will seek damages of at least $100 million.

For decades, Coca-Cola was both a customer and a tenant of the Bigio family, Bigio said. In the late 1930s, Coca-Cola leased part of his family's land in Heliopolis, a suburb of Cairo, and set up a plant. Later, the Bigios started manufacturing bottle caps and serving trays for Coca-Cola.

According to some historians, a surge of pan-Arab nationalism forced about 50,000 Jews to flee Egypt in the 1950s and 1960s. One day in 1962, Bigio, who was being groomed to take over the family business, arrived at the factory to find the street filled with dozens of police officers demanding he turn over the keys.

The family fled to France where they were accepted as refugees. They eventually made it to Montreal where they established a successful agro-industrial enterprise.

In 1980, Egypt's minister of finance ordered the state insurance company, Misr Insurance, to return the properties to the Bigio family.

Bigio had been trying unsuccessfully for years to reclaim his assets through Egyptian courts when he heard Coca-Cola was interested in buying the bottling company that ran his family's old factories.

"We approached them in good faith, in a peaceful manner and reminded them of the relationship we had with them," Bigio said. He requested compensation, "but they brushed us off," he said.

Coca-Cola purchased a minority stake in the bottler in 1994. Crystal Warwell Walker, a spokeswoman for Coca-Cola, said the company has never leased property directly from the Bigios; Coca-Cola does not even own the land, she added.

"If you want to sue on ownership rights, the company doesn't have them," she said. The bottling company leases the property from the insurance company, Misr, she said.
She added though that the company will agree to deal with the matter through an Egyptian court because U.S. law regarding jurisdiction prevents Misr from being named as a defendant.

Bigio has been fighting to have his day in a U.S. court for almost a decade. His first lawsuit was dismissed by a New York federal judge for procedural reasons. A court of appeals reversed the ruling, finding the Bigios are unable to get relief through the Egyptian courts

Bigio is buoyed by the Supreme Court's refusal to consider Coca-Cola's request to overturn the appeal, as well as by support from the community.

Last week, the Zionist Organization of America, asked its members to boycott Coca-Cola products based on Bigio's case. "They should not have helped Egypt benefit from this theft," said the pro-Israel group's president, Morton Klein.

Lewin said the next step will be to begin discovery - to request evidence from the company - but he expects further delays brought on by the Coca-Cola.

Bigio said he will not back down.

"When you know something is yours in your right and if you fight for it in the proper decorum, at the end justice does prevail."

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