(CN) – Former president of Colombia Alvaro Uribe will not have to testify in a case brought by citizens whose relatives were killed by death squads, a federal judge ruled.
The lawsuit seeks damages from the Alabama-based Drummond coal company and its executives for supporting the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC) – a right-wing, anti-labor death squad – that fought to wrest control of Colombia from the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) during a civil conflict in the late 1990s.
Drummond began mining in La Loma, Cesar Province, in 1995. It ships the coal to Puerto Drummond, about 120 miles away in Santa Marta, Magdalena Province. The communist-inspired FARC controlled both areas while trying to overthrow the Colombian government, and tried to seize assets like Drummond’s mine through violent means to redistribute wealth to Colombian peasants.
In a 176-page complaint, victims of the conflict and their family members say Drummond teamed with the AUC to drive out the FARC in 1999. As such, the company was complicit in the AUC’s “scorched earth methodology” in which the group terrorized the local population to ensure they would not support or sympanthize with the FARC.
Filed by the beneficiaries of 113 Colombians executed by the AUC, the lawsuit against Drummond alleges war crimes, extrajudicial killings and crimes against humanity under the Alien Tort statute, and extrajudicial killings under the Torture Victim Protection Act.
Claiming that the Colombian military helped Drummond and the AUC during the conflict, the victims’ families sought to depose former Colombia president Alvaro Uribe. The families also claimed that Uribe, who took office in 2002 and left in 2010, helped form the AUC while he was governor of Antioquia.
When Uribe failed to show up to his own deposition, the plaintiffs asked the District Court in Washington to compel his appearance.
U.S. District Judge John Bates rejected the maneuver on Thursday, however, finding that Uribe was entitled to immunity as a foreign government official.
“Although plaintiffs seek information ‘with respect to events that occurred before [respondent] was president,’ that information still relates to information he received and acts he took in his official capacity as a government official – here, the governor of Antioquia,” Bates wrote. “Moreover, mere allegations of illegality do not serve to render an action unofficial for purposes of foreign official immunity.”
Though the families had argued that official immunity does not protect illegal acts, Bates said that “would eviscerate the protection of foreign official immunity and would contravene federal law on foreign official immunity.”
“Not only would such a rule place a strain upon our courts and our diplomatic relations, but it would also eviscerate any protection that foreign official immunity affords,” Bates added.
The nine-page decision says the families showed that Uribe was acting “within his official capacity but illegally,” but they did not show how Uribe was “acting outside his authority,” as necessary to compel testimony.
“Plaintiffs, then, do not currently seek information unrelated to acts taken or obtained in respondent’s official capacity, but to the extent they were to seek such information, plaintiffs may not depose respondent until they exhaust other reasonably available means for obtaining the information,” Bates wrote.
Attorneys for the victims group said they were very disappointed with the decision and plan to appeal.
“There is no immunity for illegal acts granted to anyone in this country, not actual, and certainly not former, presidents,” Terry Collingsworth, a partner with Conrad & Scherer of Fort Lauderdale, said in a statement. “We are seeking to depose Mr. Uribe on his role in assisting illegal armed groups in Colombia, including those that murdered our clients in the Drummond case. Mr. Uribe’s conduct amounts to war crimes, and the law does not grant immunity to war criminals.”