US judge allows Colombians to sue Chiquita

Image caption,
Bananas are a major crop in Colombia, grown on plantations and small-scale farms

A judge in the United States has dismissed an attempt by banana producer Chiquita to halt multi-million-dollar compensation cases being brought by at least 4,000 Colombians.

They allege they or their relatives were tortured or killed in banana-growing areas by paramilitaries paid by the company.

Chiquita, which is based in the US, has admitted paying paramilitaries.

But it says it will defend itself against the Colombians' claims.

In 2007, Chiquita was fined $25m (£15m) in the US for paying a Colombian paramilitary group - the United Self-Defence Forces or AUC - that the American government had listed as a terrorist organisation.

The company paid paramilitaries $1.7m (£1m) between 1997 and 2004, the year it sold its banana holdings in Colombia.

It says it was forced to make the payments in order to protect its employees, not because it supported terrorism.

'Murderous aims'

Paul Wolf, a lawyer for the claimants, hailed the decision by the Florida judge as a "remarkable victory".

He said he was very optimistic that they would win their case at trial.

Lawsuits have been filed in a number of federal courts, under a statute that allows foreigners to sue if their claims involve violations of US treaties or a US law protecting victims of torture.

Following the latest court ruling, a spokesman for Chiquita, Ed Loyd, called the Colombians' claims "outrageous".

In a statement, he said that for the cases to succeed, the claimants would have to prove "that Chiquita shared the murderous aims of the AUC - not merely that Chiquita knew the AUC was a violent group".

He said they would never be able to do this, "because it is not true".

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