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Banana giant Chiquita found liable for funding Colombian terrorist group

A Florida jury ordered Chiquita Brands International on Monday to pay $38.3 million to the families of eight victims of a Colombian paramilitary group that "murdered innocent victims." Chiquita said it plans to appeal, stating there are "no legal basis for these claims." File Photo by Aaron Kehoe/UPI
A Florida jury ordered Chiquita Brands International on Monday to pay $38.3 million to the families of eight victims of a Colombian paramilitary group that "murdered innocent victims." Chiquita said it plans to appeal, stating there are "no legal basis for these claims." File Photo by Aaron Kehoe/UPI | License Photo

June 12 (UPI) -- After 17 years of litigation, banana producer Chiquita Brands International has been found liable for financing a Colombian paramilitary group that "murdered innocent victims."

A Florida jury in the civil case ordered Chiquita on Monday to pay $38.3 million to the families of eight victims of the paramilitary group United Self-Defense Groups Columbia, or AUC, which was designated a terrorist group by the United States and disbanded in 2006, according to Stanford University's Mapping Militants Project.

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"Chiquita knowingly provided substantial assistance to the AUC to a degree sufficient to create a foreseeable risk of harm to others," the jury in the Southern District of Florida found.

EarthRights originally filed the case in July 2007, "accusing Chiquita of financing torture, war crimes and other human rights abuses."

"Chiquita made regular monthly payments, totaling more than $1.7 million to security forces controlled by AUC, a brutal paramilitary organization known for mass killing and designated by the U.S. government as a terrorist organization. That designation made supporting the AUC a federal crime," EarthRights said in a statement.

Chiquita pleaded guilty to funding the group between 1997 and 2004, following an inquiry by the U.S. Justice Department, but had not compensated the families of those murdered. The company, which claimed the payments were "security services," settled with the Justice Department in 2007 and paid a $25 million fine for funding terrorism.

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According to court documents, an unnamed Chiquita executive had told the Justice Department it was forced to pay the AUC under threat of violence.

"Chiquita's claim that it was forced to support the terrorists because it was itself the victim of extortion was a defense expressly rejected by the jury," Searcy Law, which represented the AUC victims and their families, wrote in a statement.

"This verdict sends a powerful message to corporations everywhere: profiting from human rights abuses will not go unpunished. These families, victimized by armed groups and corporations, asserted their power and prevailed in the judicial process," said Marco Simons of EarthRights International General Counsel.

According to EarthRights, Monday's ruling marks the "first time that an American jury has held a U.S. corporation liable for complicity in serious human rights abuses in another country."

In response, Chiquita said it plans to appeal.

"The situation in Colombia was tragic for so many, including those directly affected by the violence there, and our thoughts remain with them and their families. However, that does not change our belief that there is no legal basis for these claims," the company said in a statement to CNN. "While we are disappointed by the decision, we remain confident that our legal position will ultimately prevail."

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A second case against Chiquita brought by another group of plaintiffs is scheduled to start next month.

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