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US: Judge OKs key witness in Colombian deaths case

International Herald Tribune
March 20th, 2007

A former Colombian security official who claims he saw an official of a U.S.-based company pay for the murders of union leaders in the South American country can testify in the upcoming civil trial over the deaths, a U.S. judge ruled Tuesday.

The decision came as the Colombian government confirmed it was investigating allegations that Drummond Ltd. collaborated with paramilitary forces to kill union members who work at its huge coal mine on the country's northern coast.

Drummond has denied any involvement in the killings. Neither the company nor its attorney immediately returned messages seeking comment Tuesday.

The Colombian union Sintramienergetica filed suit in the U.S. claiming Drummond paid paramilitary gunmen to murder three labor leaders who represented Drummond employees in 2001. Two of the men were taken off a company bus and shot, according to the suit.

The union's wrongful death claims are against Drummond Ltd., the Colombian arm of Drummond, and its president, Augusto Jimenez.

The judge said union attorneys could obtain sworn testimony of former Colombian security official Rafael Garcia. He has submitted a sworn statement claiming he saw Jimenez give "a suitcase full of money" to a representative of a paramilitary leader in 2001. Jimenez said the money was "to assassinate specific union leaders at Drummond," according to Garcia's statement.

Garcia is imprisoned in Colombia, but the judge said union attorneys can present his testimony either by video conferencing or a sworn statement.

The trial is set to begin May 14.

Union attorney Dan Kovalik said Drummond cannot appeal the order allowing Garcia's testimony. "This is just huge for us," he said.

In Colombia, chief federal prosecutor Mario Iguaran confirmed a probe was under way into Drummond's alleged links to paramilitary groups.

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