A divided U.S. appeals court on Thursday threw out claims that Chiquita Brands International was complicit in the deaths thousands of Colombians during years of civil war.
Judges at the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled 2-1 that federal courts have no jurisdiction over the Colombian claims. The lawsuits – brought by relatives of an estimated 4,000 deceased people – accused U.S.-based Chiquita of assisting in the killings by paying $1.7 million to a violent, right-wing paramilitary group known as the AUC, the Spanish acronym for United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia.
Chiquita has long insisted it was the victim of extortion and was forced to pay the AUC or face violence directed at its employees and assets in Colombia.
The AUC, which signed a peace deal in 2003, was formed in 1997 to unite several right-wing militias against the leftist guerrilla group known as FARC, from the Spanish name Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. The resulting campaign killed about 50,000 people, mostly civilians, according to Colombian prosecutors.
The U.S. government has listed both the AUC and FARC as “terrorist” organizations.
Chiquita celebrated Thursday’s ruling.
"We are gratified that the U.S. Court of Appeals has now agreed with us and the claims have been dismissed," Chiquita spokesman Ed Loyd said in an emailed statement. "The decision reinforces what Chiquita has maintained from the beginning – that Chiquita is not responsible for the tragic violence that has plagued Colombia."
Chiquita in March 2007 pleaded guilty to a U.S. criminal charge and paid a $25 million fine to the Justice Department for having made payments to AUC from 1997 through 2004. Chiquita, based in the United States, formerly operated large banana plantations in Colombia through its Banadex subsidiary.
The judges at Thursday’s trial cited a 2013 U.S. Supreme Court ruling known as Kiobel vs. Royal Dutch Petroleum that imposed limits on attempts by foreigners to use U.S. courts to seek damages against corporations for human rights abuses abroad. Chiquita had insisted that ruling meant the Colombians' lawsuit had to be tossed out.
Attorneys for the relatives of the deceased could still ask the full 11th Circuit or the Supreme Court to review the case, but otherwise their only option would be to seek damages through Colombian courts.
"It's another tragedy for the victims of the war, who have already been through so much," said attorney Paul Wolf, who represents a large number of Colombian plaintiffs. "There is nowhere else they can go for justice."
Al Jazeera and wire services