U.S. News

Drummond's Colombia rights trial begins in Alabama

BIRMINGHAM, Alabama (Reuters) - U.S. coal company Drummond went on trial on Monday on charges it paid right-wing paramilitary gunmen to kill union leaders at a mine it operates in a war-torn corner of northern Colombia.

The trial began with jury selection in a case that could help set a precedent for U.S. companies accused of human rights violations abroad.

Privately-held and Alabama-based Drummond Company Inc. has denied involvement in the 2001 deaths of the three union leaders near the sprawling open pit mine it operates in Colombia.

The lawsuit was filed by the International Labor Rights Fund and Pittsburgh-based United Steelworkers union in March 2002 and seeks unspecified damages on behalf of the dead union leaders’ families.

U.S. District Judge Karon Bowdre is hearing the case.

Masked gunmen forced Colombian union leaders Valmore Locarno, Victor Orcasita and Gustavo Soler off buses and killed them in 2001. The three Drummond employees had argued with the mining company over wage and safety issues.

Four witnesses have come forward claiming Drummond gave cash and cars to paramilitary fighters in exchange for killing the men.

Colombia paramilitary death squads were formed in the 1980s to help cattle ranchers and other rich residents of the Andean nation protect themselves from leftist rebels.

They have waged a long campaign against leftists and suspected rebel sympathizers and are believed responsible for killing most of the more than 4,000 Colombian union leaders and activists gunned down since 1986.

Earlier this year, U.S. banana giant Chiquita Brands International Inc. pleaded guilty to paying $1.7 million in protection money to Colombian paramilitaries between 1997 and 2004. That case never went to trial.