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Friday, July 13, 2007


Companies (and the U.S.) on trial

While Michael Moore is busy putting health "care" corporations on trial figuratively in his new movie, two very real courtroom battles are taking place in different corners of the country against other corporations guilty of murder.

In Alabama, it's the Drummond (Coal) Co. on trial for complicity in the murder of three Colombian unionists:

In 2001, paramilitary hit men pulled three union leaders off buses in this roasting-hot swath of northeastern Colombia and shot them dead. In a shadowy conflict where gunmen often kill union activists, the slaying generated little attention, even as the dead men's families accused their American employer of having ordered the hits.

Now, six years later, the spotlight is on Drummond Co., the Alabama-based coal producer that employed the men. This week, in a federal court in Birmingham, the company has begun defending itself in a civil suit in which the families of the slain union members are seeking unspecified damages for their deaths. Drummond has denied allegations that it ever worked with paramilitary groups or played a role in the deaths.

The case marks the first time an American company has gone before a jury in a U.S. court for alleged abuses committed abroad. The trial is expected to generate scrutiny from other federal benches and the Supreme Court, which in 2004 upheld a ruling that foreigners could sue in American courts for abuses abroad -- but under narrowly defined legal boundaries. A key question is whether federal courts will be inclined to hold corporations responsible under the arcane 18th-century law -- called the Alien Tort Claims Act -- that was used to take Drummond to court.
Drummond says "they didn't know" but they're lying:
Among the witnesses who have come forward here is Edwin Guzman, a former Colombian army sergeant whose unit, the Popa battalion, deployed hundreds of men inside Drummond's installations.

Guzman said in an interview that Drummond provided transportation to paramilitary units and that the company's chief of security coordinated military-paramilitary operations. The Popa's former commander, Col. Hernán Mejía, was cashiered and is being investigated for having allegedly collaborated with paramilitary groups.

Guzman said Drummond officials knew full well how the paramilitary groups operated.
Meanwhile, in Seattle, it's the Caterpiller (Tractor) Co. on trial not only for the well-known (worldwide) murder of Rachel Corrie, but for the murders of eight Palestinians as well (technically, for "aiding and abetting human rights violations"). Caterpillar, as I'm sure readers know, sold bulldozers to Israel knowing full well that they were being used to demolish the homes of Palestinians (and anything or anyone that got in their way). In that case, interestingly enough (but not surprisingly), the U.S. Government has stepped in on the side of Caterpillar, filing an amicus brief and arguing in court that a ruling in the case would undermine U.S. foreign policy.

And indeed, that's the truth. In both of these cases, while corporations are the immediate targets of these lawsuits, U.S. foreign policy is very much on trial.

Update: And just in case you thought the situation in Colombia was in the distant past:

The second time gunmen came to kill labor union leader Alberto Bautista was early July 5, just as he was stepping out of his outhouse to get ready for work.

Amnesty International, in a report last week that quoted figures from Colombia's National Trade Union School, said that between January 1991 and December 2006, 2,245 trade unionists were killed, 3,400 threatened and 138 'disappeared.'

This year, union leaders say, 19 labor activists have been killed.

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