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31 July 2003 Edition

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We're innocent - Colombia accused testify in court

The three Irishmen on trial in Colombia made a surprise appearance in court for the first time in their trial on Wednesday as the lengthy proceedings draw to a close. They vehemently protested their innocence of training FARC guerillas, reasserting their position that they had been in Colombia, like many other international visitors, to observe the peace process. The men singled out the British and US embassies in Bogotá for special criticism, accusing them of spreading misinformation about them from the outset.

The previous day, the head of Colombia's armed forces, in what the men's supporters believe is part of an ongoing campaign by Colombia's political and military establishment to put pressure on the trial judge, publicly called for their conviction.

Niall Connolly, Martin McCauley and Jim Monaghan have been charged with the use of false public documentation and training the FARC. They have been in custody for nearly two years. The trial began on 4 October last and since it began it has stopped and started seven times.

Following the summing up by the prosecution on Monday, each of the men made statements to the court on Wednesday. The defence will begin its summation on Thursday.

Caitríona Ruane of the Bring Them Home Campaign said: "Niall Connolly, Martin McCauley and Jim Monaghan have taken the opportunity to give their version of events and come to the court. We are calling on the Colombian government to rein in their military now and to stop their attempts to intimidate the judge. There is no evidence in this case, the military know it, the prosecutor knows it, the Colombian government knows it and the world knows it.

"The Colombian authorities should send these men home to their families. The Irish government should be calling for the release of the men. This is a farcical show trial."

MEP harassed as case draws to a close

On Tuesday morning, following the completion of the closing arguments of the prosecutor and the solicitor general, Colombian General Enrique Mora, head of the armed forces, issued a public statement vehemently calling for the three defendants' convictions. In a letter to the President of the EU Parliament, Pat Cox, urging his direct intervention with the Colombian authorities, Fianna Fáil MEP Niall Andrews, who is attending the tral as an observer, wrote that: "The timing of this highly prejudicial statement sends a clear and sinister message to the court presiding over this trial that a judgment of conviction should be rendered irrespective of the evidence."

On Sunday, Andrews was approached and questioned in an intimidating manner as he left his hotel by a man claiming to be from the police and asked what he was doing in the country. The man made intimidating gestures. A short time later another man took photographs of Niall Andrews as he was getting into a taxi.

"I felt that there was some kind of psychological pressure being exerted," said Andrews in a statement. "I decided not to take the taxi to the cathedral but rather to return to the hotel. As a result I felt it was unsafe to leave the hotel alone. I recalled similar incidents in Central America years ago. I also feel that the whole process of intimidation is counterproductive to the interests of the Colombian State."

Caitríona Ruane, spokesperson for the Bring Them Home Campaign, said: "This is unacceptable behaviour from the Colombian Police and is part of a pattern of harassment of the international observers. I have sent a statement of this incident to the Irish government and called on them to make a formal complaint to the Colombian Authorities."

In his letter to Pat Cox, Niall Andrews highighted the high level interference in the trial. "From the moment of the men's arrest almost two years ago, high-ranking officials in the Colombian armed forces have repeatedly made well-publicized statements prejudging the defendants as guilty. One such officer, General Fernandez Tapías, made such inflammatory statements in testimony given to the United States Congress; in support of his sentiments, General Fernandez Tapías testified to facts and circumstances concerning the arrest and judicial process in this case which in the course of the trial have been demonstrated to be false.

The Fianna Fáil MEP pointed out that "prejudicial statements have been made by the current President of Colombia, Alvaro Uribe, and his predecessor, Andrés Pastrana, and by the current Vice President Santos.

"Vice President Santos's statement was made a few weeks after he acknowledged to an earlier observer delegation that it was improper for political representatives to make public statements prejudging the defendants as guilty.

"There is no question that these statements by political and military officers have been issued for no other purpose than to pressure the court and to prejudice the defendants' right to a fair trial. Like General Fernandez Tapías's statement, these other statements are manifestly inconsistent with the evidence adduced at trial."

A team of international observers comprising politicians, lawyers and human rights activists have travelled from three continents to observe the trial.

Also on the international delegation observing the trial are Sinn Féin TD Sean Crowe, Fiann said he would be bringing up the matter by way of resolution to the Foreign Affairs Committee of the European Parliament at the earliest opportunity. He said he would be raising the issue with the Italian presidency. "In view of the fact that Ireland will hold the presidency beginning 1 January 2004, we will collectively as a group be seeking a meeting with the Irish Minister for Foreign Affairs, Brian Cowen," he said.

Cosing defence arguments will mark the end of the trial this week, but it is expected to be some weeks before a verdict is delivered.

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