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17 June 2004 Edition

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Colombia Three leave jail but cannot return home

BY MARTIN SPAIN

Dublin Government urged to intervene

Three Irishmen acquitted of training FARC rebels in Colombia have left jail, six weeks after their trial. Niall Connolly, Martin McCauley and James Monaghan were found guilty of travelling on false passports and have paid a fine for that offence.

The men were driven out of La Modelo prison in the capital Bogota in two cars, under heavy police protection, late on Tuesday afternoon. However, they are still not free to leave Colombia and return home. Magistrates have ruled that they should remain in the country pending an appeal by the prosecution against the verdict on the main charges.

It had been reported, before the judge's decision, that the Colombian government had proposed a deal under which the men would be able to leave the country on payment of a bond, but Caitríona Ruane of the Bring Them Home Campaign confirmed to An Phoblacht that this is not true.

Last Thursday, the Colombian authorities had said that they had no problem with the men returning to Ireland while they awaited a decision in relation to an appeal. But the Colombian Attorney General is responsible for the men having to stay in the country, Ruane confirmed. Under Colombian law, once an appeal has been lodged, defendants cannot leave the country. She has urged the Colombian government to intervene to allow the men return home.

"We are very disappointed and surprised at the magistrates' decision not to allow them to go back to Ireland pending the appeal," said Ruane. "Colombia is not a secure environment for the men. The judge's decision that the men were innocent of the serious charges should have been the end of the matter. We believe it is unjust that they have to remain in the country. They remain in very difficult and dangerous circumstances.

"We are calling on the Colombian judicial system to expedite this case in the interests of natural justice. We are calling on Bertie Ahern to make urgent representation to President Uribe on this matter.

"The men are in good spirits and we look forward to them returning to Ireland to be reunited with their families."

Ruane urged republicans to lobby Taoiseach Bertie Ahern and Foreign Minister Brian Cowen to intervene directly with Colombian President Uribe to secure a safe return home for the men and to lobby Colombian embassies around the world to put pressure on the Colombian Government.

Sinn Féin North Belfast MLA Gerry Kelly, speaking from Bogota, said he was astonished at the decision of Colombian Magistrates to refuse to allow the men return to Ireland during the dangerous period between now and the appeal of their innocent verdict. He called on the Dublin Government to intervene immediately to ensure that the men are brought home safely to their families.

"I am now calling on the Irish Government to make representations to the Colombian authorities to get this matter sorted out as soon as possible for the safety of the men."

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