Chiquita asks court to toss terror payments case

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Chiquita asks court to toss terror payments case
UNITED STATES - MARCH 31: Chiquita bananas sit on display in a supermarket in New York, U.S., on Monday, March 31, 2008. Chiquita Brands International Inc. faces possible damages of $780 million, 16 times what it lost last year over the murders of five American missionaries by Marxist rebels a decade ago in Colombia. The Cincinnati-based owner of the namesake banana brand was fined $25 million after pleading guilty to paying $1.7 million to paramilitary militias from 1997 to 2004. (Photo by Daniel Acker/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
US lawyer Jonathan Reiter points at a map of Colombia marked with pins to locate people allegedly tortured and killed by Colombian paramilitaries on the payroll of banana giant Chiquita Brands International during a press conference in New York, 14 November 2007. A 7.86 billion USD lawsuit was filed against Chiquita Brands by Reiter, who represents 393 alleged victims, charging that the company conspired with Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (ACU), a Colombian paramilitary group, by making payments to ACU totaling over 1.7 million USD, leading to the torture or killing of 393 people. AFP PHOTO/Emmanuel DUNAND (Photo credit should read EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP/Getty Images)
ARACATACA, COLOMBIA - MARCH 14: A Colombian worker applies chemicals to bananas before packaging at a banana plantation on March 14, 2006 in Aracataca, Colombia. Eighty percent of the exported bananas in the world are grown in Latin America. Local farms have no other alternative than to sell for a price offered by the multinational company. When working conditions (workers on the plantations are hired on a monthly-contract basis) and ecology (some pesticides used on the banana plantations are forbidden in Europe and in the US) is in question, the corporations do not have any responsibility as they do not own plantations. Local governments in the attempt of organizing banana export provide low duty taxes on export, they try to eliminate social and enviromental politics to attract the big companies to their countries. (Photo by Jan Sochor/Latincontent/Getty Images)
ARACATACA, COLOMBIA - MARCH 14: View of a colombian worker with a machete at a banana plantation on March 14, 2006 in Aracataca, Colombia. Eighty percent of the exported bananas in the world are grown in Latin America. Local farms have no other alternative than to sell for a price offered by the multinational company. When working conditions (workers on the plantations are hired on a monthly-contract basis) and ecology (some pesticides used on the banana plantations are forbidden in Europe and in the US) is in question, the corporations do not have any responsibility as they do not own plantations. Local governments in the attempt of organizing banana export provide low duty taxes on export, they try to eliminate social and enviromental politics to attract the big companies to their countries. (Photo by Jan Sochor/Latincontent/Getty Images)
ARACATACA, COLOMBIA - MARCH 14: Young Colombian workers prepare the aircable to transport bananas at a banana plantation on March 14, 2006 in Aracataca, Colombia. Eighty percent of the exported bananas in the world are grown in Latin America. Local farms have no other alternative than to sell for a price offered by the multinational company. When working conditions (workers on the plantations are hired on a monthly-contract basis) and ecology (some pesticides used on the banana plantations are forbidden in Europe and in the US) is in question, the corporations do not have any responsibility as they do not own plantations. Local governments in the attempt of organizing banana export provide low duty taxes on export, they try to eliminate social and enviromental politics to attract the big companies to their countries. (Photo by Jan Sochor/Latincontent/Getty Images)
ARACATACA, COLOMBIA - MARCH 14: Colombian workers prepare bananas for packaging at a banana plantation on March 14, 2006 in Aracataca, Colombia. Eighty percent of the exported bananas in the world are grown in Latin America. Local farms have no other alternative than to sell for a price offered by the multinational company. When working conditions (workers on the plantations are hired on a monthly-contract basis) and ecology (some pesticides used on the banana plantations are forbidden in Europe and in the US) is in question, the corporations do not have any responsibility as they do not own plantations. Local governments in the attempt of organizing banana export provide low duty taxes on export, they try to eliminate social and enviromental politics to attract the big companies to their countries. (Photo by Jan Sochor/Latincontent/Getty Images)
A Colombian worker checking the plastic protection cover on the banana bunch on the banana plantation in Aracataca, Colombia.
A Colombian worker checking the plastic protection cover on the banana bunch on the banana plantation in Aracataca, Colombia.
A Colombian worker preparing bananas for packaging on the banana plantation in Aracataca, Colombia.
A soldier standing next a banana bunch on the banana plantation in Aracataca, Colombia.
Police officers and soldiers stand in front of the destroyed police station of Inza, in Colombia's southern Cauca state, Saturday, Dec. 7, 2013. The Colombian Army said that five members of the military, two civilians and a police officer were killed after rebels of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, FARC, threw artisanal mortar at the post from a truck, destroying that and several other buildings. (AP Photo/Juan Bautista Diaz)
Police officers and soldiers stand in front of the destroyed police station of Inza, in Colombia's southern Cauca state, Saturday, Dec. 7, 2013. The Colombian Army said that members of the military, civilians and a police officer were killed after rebels of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, FARC, threw artisanal mortar at the post from a truck, destroying that and several other buildings. (AP Photo/Juan Bautista Diaz)
Rebels from Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, FARC, leave the area after blocking a road in El Palo, located in the southern Cauca state of Colombia, Tuesday, June 4, 2013. According the the army, one rebel was killed during fighting with soldiers. (AP Photo/Juan B. Diaz)
A produce deliveryman loads boxes of Chiquita Brands International Inc. bananas onto a truck in Chinatown in San Francisco, California, U.S., on Tuesday, Feb. 19, 2013. Chiquita Brands International Inc. is expected to release quarterly earnings data on Feb. 21. Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Medellin, COLOMBIA: Salvatore Mancuso (C), a demobilized boss of the paramilitaries United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC - extreme right), arrives at a Court to testify before a district attorney in Medellin, 15 May 2007. Three US-based multinational banana giants made illegal payments to Colombian paramilitaries, and Dole collected the funds, Mancuso said in an interview published yesterday. 'All of the banana companies paid us. Every one of them,' Salvatore Mancuso told to a newspaper. Mancuso said the multinationals Chiquita Brands, Dole and Del Monte, and Colombian firms Banacol, Uniban and Proban all made payments. 'An agreement was made with Chiquita Brands Inc, Dole, Banacol, Uniban, Proban and Del Monte. They paid us one cent on the dollar for every crate that went out of the country. And the other companies in the industry made contributions twice a year,' Mancuso said. AFP PHOTO/Luis BENAVIDES - POOL (Photo credit should read LUIS BENAVIDES/AFP/Getty Images)
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MIAMI (AP) -- Chiquita Brands International asked a federal appeals court Thursday to dismiss lawsuits filed against the produce giant by relatives of thousands of Colombians killed in a bloody civil war, contending the cases do not belong in a U.S. court.

John Hall, attorney for Charlotte, N.C.-based Chiquita, told a three-judge panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that any legal action by the relatives should be pursued in Colombia.

The lawsuits accuse Chiquita, which for decades had huge banana plantations in Colombia, of assisting in the killings by paying $1.7 million to a right-wing paramilitary group labeled a terrorist organization by the U.S. Chiquita has insisted it only made the payments because of threats against it by the group known as the AUC - the Spanish acronym for United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia.

"There is nothing to suggest that plaintiffs can't bring similar claims in Colombia," Hall said. U.S. law, he added, is "focused on the site of the conduct, not the identity of the defendant."

The Colombians' lawyer, Paul Hoffman, countered that the cases belonged in the U.S. because Chiquita is based in this country and made decisions about the payments at its headquarters, at the time in Cincinnati. Additional proof, Hoffman said, is Chiquita's 2007 guilty plea to U.S. criminal charges over the payments, which resulted in a $25 million fine.

"I can't say it any other way - it was mass murder," Hoffman said. "How could that not touch and concern the United States?"

The judges did not indicate when they would rule, a process that can take several months. Chiquita is appealing a decision not to dismiss the lawsuits by West Palm Beach-based U.S. District Judge Kenneth Marra, before whom lawsuits filed in several states were consolidated in 2008. Damages could reach into the billions of dollars.

Chiquita, the largest U.S. banana seller, sold its Colombian subsidiary Banadex in 2004. The AUC payments were made over seven years before that.

The AUC was formed in 1997 to unite several right-wing militias in battle against the leftist guerrilla group known as FARC, Spanish for Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. The resulting campaign killed some 50,000 people, mostly civilians, according to Colombian prosecutors.

The arguments Thursday revolved mainly around a 2013 U.S. Supreme Court decision known as Kiobel vs. Royal Dutch Petroleum, which imposed limits on the ability of foreigners to use American courts to seek accountability and monetary damages for human rights abuses.

Like that case, the Colombian lawsuits against Chiquita invoke the Alien Tort Statute, a 1789 law that human rights lawyers used to sue individuals and companies that allegedly were involved in abuses overseas. The Chiquita lawyer, Hall, said the Kiobel decision means there is now a presumption against such "extraterritorial" lawsuits being brought in the U.S.

"That's exactly how the court ought to rule in this case," he said.

Hoffman, however, said the Kiobel decision did not bar all lawsuits like this from the U.S. If there's enough linkage between a U.S. person or company and the overseas atrocities, he said, a case such as those against Chiquita can go forward.

"If this one's not OK, then there are no extraterritorial cases," Hoffman said.

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