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FRIDAY, JULY 27, 2007

Drummond not to blame for killings, jury says

By Jay Reeves
Associated Press Writer

BIRMINGHAM — A trial that brought the bloody terror of Colombia's civil conflict into a U.S. courtroom ended with a judicial setback for labor in the South American country.

Jurors decided Thursday that Alabama-based Drummond coal and the head of its Colombian operations, Augusto Jimenez, wasn't to blame for the killings of three union leaders, including one pulled off a company bus and shot to death as co-workers watched.

Testimony in the federal court trial included stories of train bombings, shadowy death threats and decades of violence between right-wing paramilitaries and leftist guerrillas in Colombia. A civil suit on behalf of the slain union leaders cited a law dating back more than two centuries as it sought to show Drummond was liable in the killings by paramilitary forces in 2001.

Drummond Ltd. attorney Bill Jeffress said he was glad the jury was able to separate the horror of the armed conflict from the company.

"Based on the evidence in this case I thought that was the only just decision," said Jeffress.

A union leader in Colombia said the ruling will embolden paramilitary gunmen targeting labor and shows America protects its overseas corporate operations.

The jury of five men and five women began deliberations late Wednesday afternoon following two weeks of testimony in the civil lawsuit brought by relatives of the dead men and their union.

The company denied any involvement with the slayings or with militia forces in the South American nation, where it operates a huge surface mine.

Lawyers in the case and outside experts said the suit was the first to go to trial against a U.S. corporation under the Alien Tort Claims Act, a 1789 law, passed to fight piracy, that lets foreigners file suit in federal court for alleged wrongdoing overseas.

"We will be appealing swiftly," said plaintiff's attorney Terry Collingsworth.

Jimenez shook hands with his attorney and wiped tears from his eyes after the verdict. He declined comment, but a company statement said the verdict was "a long time coming."

"We have waited for five years for the opportunity to demonstrate what we knew all along, that the charges against our company and president ... were false," the statement said.

In Colombia, Stevenson Avila, local president of Sintramienergetica, the union representing Drummond workers, said the ruling is likely to embolden paramilitary assassins.

"Our biggest fear right now is that union members will be left vulnerable to assassination," he said.

"Near the mine, paramilitary groups are already rearming and with this ruling I'm sure the attack against us will be head-on."

"We knew this was becoming a question of state policy, and that America protects its companies, but we held out hope that presenting real, documented evidence of the company's responsibility that justice would be served."

Drummond Ltd. is a division of the privately owned Drummond Co. Inc., which was dismissed as a defendant before the trial began. Both companies are based in Alabama.

Valmore Locarno, 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 and shot to death in March 2001.

Gustavo Soler, who succeeded Locarno as president, was murdered seven months later after being taken off a bus.

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.

Lawyers for the men's families and their union, Sintramienergetica, told jurors the slayings followed months of escalating tension between the men and the company. Drummond helped the paramilitaries blamed for the murders by providing them safe haven on mine property and gasoline, they argued.

Drummond attorneys, while denying any role in the killings or ties to paramilitaries, said the deaths were a tragic part of years of violence in the South American country.

The judge told the jury that to win, the families and union had to prove Drummond knowingly aided the killers and committed what amounts to a war crime in Colombia.

Other U.S. companies have been accused of having ties to militias, which are illegal under Colombia law and considered terror groups by the United States.

A congressional subcommittee held a hearing last month into the Colombian dealings of Drummond and Chiquita Brands International Inc., which admitted paying paramilitaries $1.7 million in protection money beginning in 1997.

The Justice Department fined Chiquita $25 million this year for making the payments.

More than 800 union members have been killed in Colombia in the last six years, according to government figures, making it the world's most dangerous country for labor. Only a few of the killings have been solved.

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

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