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Chiquita, the global banana producer, was ordered this week to face a federal court over their role in paying off right wing death squads in Colombia. Villagers allege that the death squads used “random and targeted violence in exchange for financial assistance and access to Chiquita’s private port for arms and drug smuggling,” according to a lawsuit filed on their behalf by EarthRights International and Cohen Milstein.

The lawsuit, which is based on the Alien Torts Claims Act (ATCA), is likely to go forward, even though the statute is being considered by the U.S. Supreme Court in a case against Royal Dutch Petroleum in Nigeria that may limit the use of the act against corporations under U.S. law. (see U.S. Supreme Court: Can Multinationals Be Sued for Crimes?) The 223 year old ATCA allows foreigners to sue in U.S. courts for violations the "law of nations.”

Cincinnati-based Chiquita has been growing bananas in Colombia since 1899. For over four decades these operations have been under attack – first by the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC), a left-wing guerrilla group, and then by Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC), a paramilitary group created by ranchers and drug traffickers.

Court documents show that Chiquita executives paid off both groups. FARC was paid between $20,000 and $100,000 a month. Chiquita has also admitted to making over 100 payments totaling $1.7 million to the AUC or affiliated organizations over seven years.

The villagers have accused the AUC of  a number of human rights abuses including torturing and killing at least 40 people in the town of Mapiripan in July 1997 and then killing 36 people and torturing dozens in a February 2000 operation.

Court documents also show that a shipment of 3,000 AK-47 assault rifles and 5 million rounds of ammunition from Nicaragua in 2001 was invoiced to Chiquita. The armaments were delivered to Chiquita warehouses and then trucked to the AUC by Chiquita, according to the legal papers.

Chiquita, which was represented by Eric Holder, admitted the payments and paid a fine of $25 million. (Holder has since been appointed U.S. attorney general in 2009 by Barack Obama)

In a ruling issued earlier this week, U.S. federal judge Judge Kenneth Marra in Florida ruled that the charges of  “cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment; violation of the rights to life, liberty and security of person and peaceful assembly and association; and consistent pattern of gross violations of human rights” would be heard in court.

Benjamin Brown of Cohen Milstein told CorpWatch that the “exciting” news was that Marra would allow his clients to use Colombian law in the case, which would mean that even if the Supreme Court did not allow the Shell lawsuit to proceed under U.S. law, the Chiquita lawsuit would likely not be affected.

“We're thrilled that the judge has recognized that our claims against Chiquita for violations of Colombian law can proceed in this lawsuit,” added Marco Simons of EarthRights in a press statement. “The plaintiffs have been waiting for justice for a decade and more, and this is one more step in the right direction for them to finally have their day in court.”

A number of lawsuits have been brought against corporations under the Alien Torts Claims Act. EarthRights International has been able to use the statute to negotiate a settlement in December 2004 with Unocal on behalf of thirteen villagers for alleged human-rights violations, such as forced labor, in the construction of the Yadana gas pipeline project in Burma.

The U.S. Supreme Court heard the case of Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum on February 28, 2012, but did not make a decision. Instead it ordered plaintiffs to return to court in October 2012 for additional arguments.

Sources : CorpWatch

Pratap Chatterjee