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Colombian labor leaders' murders go to jurors

BIRMINGHAM (AP)— A lawyer for families suing Alabama-based Drummond coal over the murders of three union leaders by paramilitary gunmen in Colombia asked jurors Wednesday to make the company pay for the slayings.

The murders followed months of escalating tension between the men and the company, and Drummond Ltd. helped anti-labor paramilitaries by allowing them safe haven on company property and providing them with gasoline, lawyers for relatives of the dead men claimed.

"They were an ever-present thorn in the side of Drummond," plaintiff's attorney Rusty Johnson said during his closing argument in the civil trial.

He asked jurors to award an unspecified amount of money to compensate the union leaders' relatives and to punish Drummond.

Jurors deliberated briefly Wednesday afternoon and will return Thursday.

Company attorney Bill Jeffress denied Drummond had any role in the killings or ties to paramilitaries. The murders were a tragic part of years of violence in the South American country, said Jeffress.

"Ladies and gentleman, the plaintiffs have the wrong people. Yes, Drummond is a large company; it is a rich company. But Drummond is not a murderer," he told jurors.

Jeffress dismissed claims that Drummond's top officer in Colombia, Augusto Jimenez, made threats toward complaining union members several times with the Spanish phrase, "A fish dies when it opens its mouth."

As proof, he said, a widow of one of the victims went to Jimenez — a defendant in the lawsuit — seeking financial assistance after the slayings. "Do you go to the man making threats seeking help?" he asked.

Families of the three workers filed suit claiming the company hired paramilitary assassins to kill the men six years ago. Jurors began deliberations two weeks after testimony began.

Attorneys involved in the case and legal experts said the lawsuit was the first one to go trial against a U.S. company under the Alien Tort Claims Act, a 1789 law that lets foreigners sue in federal court for alleged wrongdoing abroad.

Originally passed to combat pirates, the law has been used over the last decade by labor groups and human rights activists who want to hold U.S. companies accountable for actions overseas.

Valmore Locarno, a maintenance worker who was president of the local union at Drummond's huge mine at La Loma, and another union official, Victor Orcasita, were pulled off a company bus outside the mine in 2001 and shot to death. Gustavo Soler, who succeeded Locarno as president, was murdered seven months later.

The families contend Drummond hired paramilitary forces to kill the men, and a paramilitary leader is charged with the murders of Locarno and Orcasita in Colombia. Drummond executives said the company has strict policies against associating with paramilitary groups, which are illegal under Colombian law.

U.S. District Judge Karon Bowdre told jurors that to win the case, the families and union must prove Drummond knowingly aided the killers and committed what amounts to a war crime in Colombia, which has been plagued for years by violence between right-wing paramilitary groups and leftist guerrillas.

Plaintiffs' lawyers didn't present any evidence directly linking Drummond to the killings, but Johnson told jurors the company was liable because it let paramilitaries operate on Drummond property and use its fuel — allegations the company denied.

Jurors never heard the claims of Rafael Garcia, who said in a sworn statement filed in court that he saw Jimenez, Drummond's Colombian president, hand "a briefcase full of cash" to a paramilitary leader before the slayings.

Jimenez testified he never paid paramilitaries for anything and is suing Garcia for libel.

Bowdre barred plaintiff's attorneys from using Garcia's written statement in court, and Colombian officials never cleared the way for a videotaped deposition that could be played in court so jurors could hear from Garcia, who is in prison.

Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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