Ex-Egyptian Jew wont swallow losing family property to Coke

JERUSALEM — As a boy in Heliopolis, Egypt, Raphael Bigio used to run through the plant where his family made trays bearing the distinctive Coca-Cola company logo. As a young man, he signed contracts with the soft-drink multinational to produce bottle caps.

For a generation, Coca-Cola was both a customer and tenant of the Bigio family of Cairo. "We had excellent relations with Coca-Cola, since the 1930s," he said.

But Bigio's fond reminiscences have been replaced by betrayal.

Bigio, whose family were once proud Egyptian landowners, is suing Coca-Cola in a U.S. federal court for illegal acquisition of his family's confiscated property.

He contends the company built its expansion in the Middle East by knowingly buying stolen property, and, moreover, that the property was stolen specifically because his family was Jewish.

"They knew exactly who we were. They knew they were buying nationalized and stolen assets," Bigio charged.

"Coca-Cola wanted the Egyptian market at any price. Bigio was not important. They wanted to beat Pepsi."

Bigio's case is expected to be the first of many court battles in the United States brought by Jews seeking to recover confiscated property from Arab countries.

If he prevails in court, Bigio's case may set a precedent that could be used to recover Nazi-looted assets. Attempts in recent years to recover such assets have been class-action suits, not suits by individuals.

The case also raises, for the first time in American courts, the question of whether religious discrimination is a human rights violation under American law.

"At a minimum, a private corporation that acts in concert with a foreign government is liable for violations of international law," asserted Grant Vinik, a Washington attorney who, along with Nathan Lewin, is representing the Bigio family.

The suit against the multinational corporation was filed in U.S. federal court under the Alien Tort Claims Law, which gives foreigners the right to sue in American courts for alleged violations of international law, or when they have been injured by such violations, said Matthew Kaliff, the executive director of the American section of the International Association of Jewish Lawyers and Jurists.

The Bigio family settled in Egypt in 1901. In 1932, they built a factory on land they owned in Heliopolis and began to produce serving trays, insecticide spray guns and portable coolers.

Coca-Cola, which was a neighbor and tenant of the Bigios, became a customer in 1938, buying trays and coolers with the company's logo.

In 1955, the family built a second plant and, operating as the National Crown Cork Company, made bottle caps for the beverage industry, including Coca-Cola, according to court documents.

Their business ties stopped in 1962, when the government of Gamal Abdel Nasser confiscated the land and factories, transferring the properties to state-owned companies. Coca-Cola continued to do business with the Egyptian state company.

Having lost their property and their livelihood, the Bigios, using refugee travel documents, fled in 1965.

"When we left Egypt, we left with $5 each," said Bigio, who runs a successful textile business from Montreal.

After Nasser's death, privatization began. This did not necessarily mean that the assets would be restored to their owners; it meant they could be sold on the market.

Officially, the Egyptian government is receptive to claims regarding the recovery of confiscated property. In 1980, Bigio won a decree from the Finance Ministry that said his assets should be returned. However, the state company that had possession of the assets refused to comply.

Bigio turned to the Egyptian courts, trying to get them to enforce the reversal of the expropriation. That these cases have yet to be concluded, indicates that there is no remedy through the Egyptian courts, Bigio's lawyers said,

In 1993, Bigio learned that the state company had found a buyer of his assets — Coca-Cola, which is believed to have paid nearly $150 million.

He wrote to Coca-Cola's directors in Atlanta to advise them that the nationalization of the property had been reversed, and that he was suing to recover the property in Egypt. Bigio said he scheduled a meeting with Coca-Cola officials in Atlanta, to be held in early 1994, before the company finalized the acquisition.

Before the appointed time, however, "they called to say they had finished the purchase," Bigio said. "I was stunned."

Coca-Cola's attorney in New York, Richard Hans, did not return calls for comment.

However, the company had argued before the lower court that the case should be dismissed because the court lacked jurisdiction. It also argued that the case was old, as the family had left the factory and the land some 25 years before.

According to Bigio's lawyers, Coca-Cola has not said it was unaware of Bigio and his claim. Instead, the company consummated the sale with full knowledge that the expropriation had been nullified.

"They have acquired stolen assets, assets taken from a family classified as refugees by the Egyptian government," Bigio charged.

A federal court in New York last year dismissed the case, agreeing with Coca-Cola that there was no jurisdiction to hear the case in American courts.

Bigio appealed, and the case may be heard as early as this month in the Second Circuit Court of Appeals in New York.

The international association of Jewish lawyers filed a brief on behalf of the Bigios, arguing that the family lost the property as a direct consequence of the Nasser regime's state-sponsored persecution of Jews.

It called on the court to recognize that Egypt was not taking private property for some valid public purpose, but that the Bigios had lost their citizenship, their property and their livelihood precisely because they were Jews.

The Bigio case is believed to be the first making a claim of religious discrimination under the Alien Tort Claims Law.

Egyptian sympathy presumably rests with Coca-Cola, which is thought to employ 9,000 people in Egypt and has said it will invest another $300 million in the country.

Bigio is aggravated with his native land, which has yet to address the question of compensation for the property of the 50,000 Jews who were forced to flee.

"Egypt has not dealt in a righteous way with the owners of assets it is now selling for billions of dollars," he said.