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7 April 2005 Edition

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Colombia Three "should have been acquitted" says judge

BY JOANNE CORCORAN

In the words of one of three appeal judges, "questionable" evidence was used last December to overturn the innocent verdicts for Niall Connolly, Jim Monaghan and Martin McCauley, the three Irishmen who have been trapped in a Colombian nightmare for the past three-and-a-half years.

The men, arrested in Bogota in 2001 on charges of training FARC guerrillas, were found not guilty after a lengthy trial last April. However, this decision was reversed just before Christmas by a three-judge, non-jury appeal court.

The men were sentenced to 17 years each, but so far they have evaded capture by Colombian authorities.

Last week, a statement by dissenting judge, Jorge Torres Romero, who sat on the three-man panel last December, was released by the court. In it, Romero revealed that there had been much dissent between the three over the men's guilt and that in his opinion, evidence brought before the court hadn't been all it seemed and that the conviction had been based on "fantasy".

"I was overwhelmed by the countless amount of technical evidence used in this case that was questionable," Romero wrote.

Romero also called the US forensics tests on some of the evidence "illegal" and said they should have been rejected. He launched a stinging attack on the judgment by his two colleagues that the contradictory forensic evidence of internationally renowned Dr Keith Borer was "immature", saying that Borer's evidence was in fact "serious, reliable and credible".

Romero was also critical of the eyewitnesses used by the prosecution, saying there were serious discrepancies among them.

"Faced with the immense doubts which arose, the men on trial should have been acquitted," he said.

Speaking at a press conference in Bogota last week, lawyers for the men said that they would use Romero's statement to reinforce their appeal made in February to Colombia's Supreme Court.

Defence lawyer Pedro Mahecha said the judge's arguments indicated the other two judges convicted the trio due to pressures from Colombian politicians and military officials.

"Torres clearly points out that there was no certainty of guilt in the case," Mahecha said. "The ruling was completely politicised."

Reacting to the latest development, spokesperson for the Bring Them Home Campaign and Sinn Féin MLA Caitríona Ruane, said it was a "scathing indictment of the Colombian legal system" and reinforced what had been said all along by those campaigning for the men's release. She called on the Dublin government to get its act together and bring the men home.

"It is clear that the case against the men was based upon pure fantasy and that the ruling was a highly politicised decision," Ruane said.

"This Irish government has a duty to safeguard the rights of Irish citizens at home and throughout the world. I am calling upon the government to intervene urgently to help secure the immediate return of James Monaghan, Niall Connolly and Martin McCauley, whose lives remain in constant and continuous danger."

Ruane said that all legal avenues were being explored, both in Colombia and internationally, but the reality remained that "legal procedures will take a considerable length of time.

"Time is against James, Niall and Martin," she pointed out.

After their initial acquittal last year, the trio left their Bogota prison but were ordered to remain in Colombia pending a government appeal. They have not been heard from since the appeal court's verdict.

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