5 February 2004 Edition
Coming Home, but when?
On Tuesday 27 January another delegation set off for Bogotá, Colombia. Led by newly-elected MLA for South Down and 'Bring them Home' Co-ordinator Caitríona Ruane, the group consisted of Niall Andrews MEP, Senator Mary White, New York-based lawyer Steve McCabe and myself.
There were three compelling reasons for our visit.
Seven months after the trial had ended, no decision had been made by the judge, despite initial indications that he would make a decision in September, December, and then the end of January.
We were concerned about the ongoing safety of the three Irishmen, who have been told there is no safe jail in Colombia, combined with the depletion of numbers of 'left-wing prisoners', down to 22 (in a jail that holds over 4,000 right-wing paramilitaries) and the latest move to another section of La Modelo jail.
On our arrival, our first meeting was with the men's lawyers, who gave us an update on the case. The next morning, the delegation visited the notorious La Modelo Prison, which has witnessed gun battles, multiple killings, rapes and even the kidnapping of visitors.
After going through the usual security checks, which include manual searches, electronic sweeps, the stamping of your arms with up to five ink and ultra violet stamps, fingerprints and photographic identification, we were eventually allowed in to see the three men. They had been moved since our previous visit and we were all equally anxious to see the their new prison conditions.
The jail is like an old converted factory, where in many cases the prisoners build their own cells. It's gloomy, humid and hard to breathe when you first arrive. I don't know if this is down to the high altitude of Bogotá or just nerves.
The men were in good spirits but were naturally frustrated about the seven-month delay in the judge making a decision. Jim Monaghan is the eldest and his pale appearance always concerns me. Two of them, Martin and Jim, share a cell, which is tiny and leaves no room for privacy. Niall Connolly is on his own and is naturally concerned about who will end up being put in his cell.
There are no facilities to cook in this new section. The food arrives in milk churn-type holders and the men are worried about the real possibility of food poisoning. An incident where strychnine was discovered in a prisoner's food during the early days of their incarceration is always a worry at the back of their minds.
They are allowed one and half hours two hours per day in the sunshine. This is compared to the right-wing paramilitaries, who get up to eight hours access. This, the food, family visits and their overall safety was just one of many issues that we raised with the prison governor during our meeting later on in the day.
He assured us that the safety of the three Irishmen was a priority for the administration in the jail and that he would consider the issue of sunshine/fresh air and food at his next meeting with the prison staff.
We then went to meet with the European Union Delegate or Ambassador, Adrian Koetsenruijter, who had just arrived in the country. We gave him a synopsis of the case, outlining our collective view that there was no substance or evidence to convict the men of the main charge of training the FARC and that in any other country the biased and prejudicial statements made prior to and during the trial would mean the collapse of the case.
The following day we had a press conference in our hotel with a large turnout from local and the international media. Right-wing protestors gathered outside, shouting abuse and threats at the delegation.
Our next meeting was with the Dutch Ambassador, with a representative of the Swedish Embassy, and the EU Ambassador was again in attendance.
We then went to meet with a representative of the United Nations, which has a permanent presence in the country. The security measures facing visitors to the complex highlights the danger facing human rights activists working in that country, with armed guards, X-ray machines, security tunnels and massive steel doors the norm. The representative, Mario Madrid Malo, updated us on the worsening security and human rights situation in Colombia and the crisis in a judicial system that is unable to cope with the thousands of cases coming before the courts with the escalation of the conflict.
We then met with Colombian Vice President Santos, who has responsibility for human rights. Again we outlined our concerns surrounding the case, the men's safety, prejudicial statements made, the lengthy delay and our concerns about whether the judge could make an impartial decision. Santos blamed the delay on the judicial system, which he said was being buried under a sea of paper reports.
He refused to accept our contention that the prejudicial statements undermined the chance of the men receiving a fair trial and an impartial verdict.
He then arranged a meeting for us with the judicial authority, who gave us a report on the workload of judges in Colombia and their difficulty keeping up with the amount of cases. They also assured us that the case was a priority and the judge could make an independent decision. We also had formal meetings with the Vice Minister for Justice and the Vice Minister for Foreign Affairs.
This was my sixth visit to Colombia in relation to this trial. Caitríona Ruane has clocked up 16 or 17 visits. The men are in good spirits but clearly, the length of time in custody is affecting them all. They have been subjected to inhuman and degrading treatment, threats to their lives and fears that their food was poisoned. The constant worry about their families and friends visiting the jail and the country has had untold strain on their wellbeing.
They watched as they were used as a political football by Colombian presidents, the British Prime Minister and their unionist allies, members of the intelligence services and gombeen Irish establishment figures.
The hardest part for me is always leaving them in that jail. I have no doubt that these men are coming home - the question is when. The delegation's visit helped to refocus attention on the plight of the so-called Colombia Three and we all look forward to their release on these trumped up charges.