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6 January 2005 Edition

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41 months of hell

BY JOANNE CORCORAN

On 11 August 2001, three Irishmen, Niall Connolly, Jim Monaghan and Martin McCauley, were arrested at El Dorado airport in Bogata, Colombia. They were charged with training left-wing FARC guerrillas in bomb-making techniques and holding false documentation. Within days, the men were being referred to as IRA members by the Colombian authorities and much of the international press, despite the fact the IRA stated early on that it had not sent any of its members to Colombia to engage in military cooperation with any group. The basis for these allegations came from the fact that the men were republicans.

Supporters of Connolly, Monaghan and McCauley, including the members of many human rights organisations, began to worry that the men would not get a fair trial.

As it happened, their trial did not begin until 4 October 2002, more than a year after their arrests.

During this time, the men suffered horrendous conditions in the many jails they were held in. Threats were made to their lives, and at one point, food had to be brought in for fear of poisoning. They were even held for several months in extremely confined conditions, without adequate access to fresh air or light, in El Dijin, the main police holding centre in Bogota, in violation of Colombian law.

Their lawyers were constantly harassed and refused entry to their clients because they would not, on principle, agree to remove their belts, ties, jackets, shoes and shoelaces, as demanded by prison officials. The lawyers were, and still are, also under threat of attack from paramilitary groups.

The case begins

In statements they made during the court case, the three men gave the true account of why they had visited Colombia. They told the judge that they had come to observe the peace process between the Colombian Government and the FARC left-wing guerrilla movement, that were occurring at that time.

According to Connolly: "I was motivated by my desire to see first hand another process of conflict resolution in motion." Jim Monaghan said they had spent several weeks in the FARC-controlled zone. "We talked to a great many people. We shared experiences about the peace processes in Ireland and Colombia."

From the beginning, however, the men's case was hampered by incredibly prejudicial comments made by senior Colombian military and politicians.

Six months after they were arrested, former-President Andrés Pastrana wrote in the Washington Post: "Some months ago, IRA members were captured in Colombia after training FARC guerrillas in urban terrorism." The same month, then-commander of the Colombian Armed Forces, General Fernando Tapias, told the US House Foreign Relations Committee that the three men "are leaders within the IRA structures in their field and they have been in Colombia for a long period and they are involved in training the FARC in terrorist activities". As the trial ended, he called for the maximum sentence of 20 years to be imposed.

During the trial, Colombian President Alvaro Uribe told Newsweek magazine: "We have IRA men in jail for training the FARC."

Evidence presented at trial consisted of blatant lies, tainted forensics, and false witnesses. The Colombian military claimed that satellite images would prove the allegation that the men were training the FARC, a claim that was later withdrawn.

The prosecution's two witnesses, one an alleged FARC deserter, testified to having witnessed the three Irishmen training guerrillas on earlier visits to the rebel safe haven in 1999 and 2000. But all three defendants were able to prove to the court that they were not in Colombia on the dates the witnesses claimed to have seen them.

More than eleven defence witnesses travelled to Colombia to help the men. One of those, Dublin Government diplomat Síle Maguire, provided an alibi witness for Niall Connolly, who had been at an Irish Embassy dinner in Havana, Cuba, on the day on which a prosecution witness claimed to have seen him in Colombia.

Jim Monaghan had video evidence proving he had not been in the country on the alleged dates.

Dr Keith Borer, a renowned independent forensic scientist from Britain, examined all material in regard to the forensic tests carried out at the US Embassy and stated in court that there was no forensic evidence against the men. Colombian forensic tests proved negative after 113 tries to find a positive result. Dr Borer also testified that FARC technology was unchanged during this time and that FARC and IRA technology were and remain very different.

While faulty and inaccurate allegations were forwarded by the prosecution, evidence prepared by the defence team was not taken into account.

The travesty of justice continued, with Judge Acosta himself receiving death threats from right-wing paramilitaries in an effort to pressure him into imposing a maximum sentence on the men, even though the trial was receiving international attention. Observers from three continents, comprising lawyers, politicians and human rights activists, the media and an official Dublin Government observer, Ambassador Art Agnew, were present.

The three men did concede the lesser charge of travelling with documents containing false names, which in Colombia is punishable with a fine and deportation.

Vindicated

The trial eventually ended on 1 August 2003. But the men were forced to wait a further eight months in La Modelo jail, packed with right-wing militants, until a verdict was reached. On Monday 27 April 2004, Judge Acosta found the men innocent of training the FARC, but guilty of the lesser charges of travelling on false documents. Their time for that charge had already been served and the men were ordered to pay fines of $6,000 each.

Judge Acosta also ordered the two prosecution witnesses be investigated for perjury. Both these witnesses had been produced by the office of the Attorney General, Luis Camilo Osorio. In a situation akin to the Supergrass trials of the '80s in the Six Counties, one of the prosecution witnesses is believed to have done the circuit of the country's courtrooms, testifying against hundreds of defendants.

It appeared that the men's 33-month Colombian nightmare had ended.

However, the Attorney General's office appealed the judgement immediately. The decision had the potential to expose the political role the office had played in the men's case, as well as thousands of others, where the course of justice had been similarly perverted by fabricated evidence.

The men were forced to stay in the country until an appeal was heard, and stayed in jail for their own safety for a number of weeks. When they finally left jail, they went into hiding. Neither the Colombian authorities nor the men's families and friends currently know where they are.

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