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24 October 2002 Edition

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Colombia Three trial adjourned

The trial of Jim Monaghan, Martin McCauley and Niall Connolly has been adjourned until 2 December.

Following the men's refusal to attend the opening of their trial last week, the defence team is currently working to secure international observors to attend the trial in an effort to ensure they receive justice. Caitriona Ruane, spokesperson for the Bring Them Home campaign group, has urged the 26-County government to send an official legal observor to the trial.

Lawyers representing the three men insist the Colombian government trumped up the charges to advance its own political agenda. This claim is supported by the administration's subsequent lobbying campaign to divert the $1.36 billion US aid programme, Plan Colombia, from social, economic and democratic development into military aid for "anti-insurgency" efforts.

The extent of political interference in the case is evident in the very public and prejudicial comments made by senior political and judicial figures in Colombia. It is also evident in the support of some elements of the Bush administration and US military for Colombia to be included in the so called war on terror.

In an article published by the Washington Post in April, the previous Colombian President, Andres Pastrana, was quoted as saying that IRA members were captured in Colombia after training FARC guerrillas in urban terrorism. The Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces, General Fernando Tapias, has also pronounced the men guilty and called for their conviction. The universal principle of "presumption of innocence", due process and Colombian judicial sovereignty have not been acknowledged or recognised.

Since his election in August, Colombian President Alvaró Uribe has continued in this vein, suspending constitutional rights, abolishing the human rights section of the Attorney General's office and transferring power from elected civilians to military commanders in conflict zones.

Mindful of past abuses of power, the Colombian constitution prohibits the declaration of a state of emergency. To overcome this minor obstacle, the new president simply redefined the measure as a "state of internal commotion" to justify his draconian measures.

In response, the Colombian justice system has simply capitulated, offering "financial incentives" to witnesses to secure convictions against those suspected of anti-government activities. Where bribery won't work, local observers report that there is widespread police and military intimidation.

The charges against the Colombia Three are based on discredited forensic evidence, bought and paid for witness testimony, and the lesser charge of travelling on false passports. Despite the widespread prejudicial comments by senior political and judicial figures in Colombia alleging links between FARC and the three men, no evidence of any links has been produced nor will it be produced at the trial.

As the Colombian government sees its case disintegrate, it is relying on trial by media. Meanwhile, the US government would appear to be distancing itself from the case. Jim Foster, US Embassy spokesperson in Bogotá, is reported as claiming that the forensic tests carried out by American experts, via the embassy, are now not likely to play a key role in the case.

The US Embassy tests, carried out without a judicial order, have been at the heart of allegations against the three men. The traces of drugs and explosives allegedly discovered by the US tests was widely reported, and unquestioningly accepted, by media in Ireland, Britain and America at the time. However, the allegations were quickly discredited. The Colombian judicial police carried out more than 100 tests on the same materials, all of which have proved negative for any trace of drugs or explosives. This is now being explained away by what US Embassy spokesperson Jim Foster is calling "possible contamination".

International forensics expert Dr Keith Borer will present evidence clearly discrediting the American test results and confirming that no traces of drugs or explosives were found on the three men.

However, in Colombia's increasing volatile political atmosphere, evidence alone does not ensure justice. This at the heart of the men's concerns, as their statement last week explains:

"The presumption of innocence is a fundamental principle of international law. We are innocent until proven guilty and entitled to challenge any evidence adduced at a public trial.

"In view of the fact that many of the allegations against us so far are unsubstantiated allegation , speculation, and in many instances pure fantasy, we now want to hear and see the evidence against us and we want to exercise the right to challenge the reliability of this evidence through our lawyers."

"Once all the evidence against us is examined then we will reconsider our position as to what we are entitled to do", the men go on to say. "We want to have the opportunity to contest the evidence against us and guarantees that international principles of justice will be respected."

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