6 December 2001 Edition
Visiting the Colombia Three
BY CAITRÍONA RUANE
BRING THEM HOME
Niall Connolly, Martin McCauley and Jim Monaghan were arrested on 11 August in Bogota Airport by the Colombian Armed Forces. They had spent five weeks in the zone conceded to the FARC in negociations with the Colombian Government. This zone is the size of Switzerland.
They were first imprisoned in El Modelo, a notorious prison in Colombia for human rights abuses and deaths inside. This prison is controlled by right-wing paramilitaries who collude with the Colombian armed forces and have been responsible for some of the worst atrocities - massacres of peasants, trade union leaders, defence lawyers, etc.
It was so dangerous for the three Irishmen in El Modelo that all their food had to be brought in from outside in case it was poisoned. Following pressure from the lawyers, international human rights bodies, the families and the Irish government, the Colombian State moved the men to El Dijin, a police holding centre in Central Bogota. That is where I visited the men.
The international media ran with reports from the world's intelligence agencies, which ranged from the ridiculous to the sublime. They accused them of being narco traffickers, arms smugglers, napalm bomb makers and whatever else they could think of. The Colombian Army said they had video evidence of them doing all these things. After a week or so all this alleged evidence disappeared into thin air and of course there was no video.
There are two forensic tests, one taken by the Colombian authorities, which tests negative for explosives. The other test was taken by the US Embassy in Bogota and conflicts with the Colombian test. This was all done in very suspicious circumstances and begs the question why a foreign government carried out a forensic test in Colombia.
There is a peace process in Colombia, which is supported by the majority of the Colombian people, as is the case with the peace process here in Ireland. The peace process in Colombia is at a critical stage and a few weeks after these men were arrested, the continuation of the zone was up for discussion. The Army and police do not want the FARC zone to continue and they are against the peace process. Civil society and human rights groups are very aware that if the zone does not continue and the negotiations end it will intensify the civil war in Colombia. These groups want to see a continuation of the peace process. The three Irishmen are caught up in this situation. They are political hostages between forces in Colombia who want to try and prove that they were training the FARC. They have gone to great lengths to do this. They have fabricated evidence, hired false witnesses and to date the men have been held without formal charges in Colombia.
The men have been moved four times since they were arrested. The campaign has said that there is no safe place for them in Colombia, given that they have already been tried by media. They are currently being held in El Dijin, after a pistol was found in a cell near them in the previous jail they were in. They are locked up 23 hours per day, isolated from each other, their cells are six feet by three feet and most of that space is taken up with the bed. They are not been given proper access to their lawyers and their defence is being blocked at every turn. Obstacles are being created for their families and campaign workers to visit them. The Colombian government has brought in a new requirement that all Irish people need a visa to enter Colombia. The family are planning to visit prior to Christmas. The tickets are bought and a visa has been requested and we still do not know if they will get to go. Niall Connolly's mother Madeleine is going on this trip and is 76 years of age. This is no way to treat a family who are already suffering because their loved ones are incarcerated in such a manner.
The men's lives are in danger every minute they are being held in Colombia. Their lawyers in Colombia have advised that there is no safe place for them. The Colombian government knows that, the Irish government knows it and so do the international human rights agencies. The families and campaign have informed the Irish government that it is essential that they intervene and call for the Colombian government to send them home. To date, the Irish government has worked very hard on consular matters but it has not publicly called for them to be brought home. It is essential that they protect and speak up for their citizens in the same way as Tony Blair has publicly called for the English people arrested in Greece to be released.
The campaign in Ireland
The men are aware of the campaign here in Ireland. I speak to one of them every two days and fill them in on every activity that is happening or organised. Their families are in regular contact with them and they are filling them in on everything. Every week there have been functions in different parts of Ireland. We had a major concert in Dublin with Christy Moore, Donal Lunny, Sharon Shannon, Philip King, and more than 1,400 people attended. Ex-prisoners have been very active in the campaign and we would like to particularly thank former republican prisoners' organisation Coiste na nIarchimí and its affiliate groups all over Ireland. The support and all the events are what is keeping the family going through very difficult times. We also have a Christmas card that is being sent to the men.
The campaign is receiving international support and has been in contact with groups in Australia, the US, Europe and Latin America. The campaign is also working with international human rights organisations throughout the world.
What can we do to help
1. Send a postcard to the men : Dijin Direccion Central de Policial Judical, Avenida Caracas 265 Sur, Carrera 14, Bogota, Colombia
2. Write to An Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, Government Buildings, Dublin 1, calling on him to intervene with Colombian President Pastrana and ask for the men to be sent home.
3. Contact your local representative and tell him/her that you are concerned about the situation of the three men
4. Participate in events organised by the Campaign throughout Ireland.
5. Organise your own events and tell us about them so they can be put on our website. www.bringthemhome.ie
6. Donate money to help family visits, and other costs of the campaign
7. Make yourself aware of what is happening in Colombia.
Lawyers under threat
The men are being represented by human rights lawyers who are working day and night for them. They visited Ireland this week and met with the families, the Irish government, republican representatives, human rights groups and international aid agencies. Defence lawyers in Colombia are targeted by the right-wing paramilitaries. In 1998 alone, 28 defence lawyers were killed. The families and campaign would like to thank these courageous men and women who are standing up for human rights and defending three Irishmen at great personal risk to themselves. It is men and women like these who ensure that peace, justice and democracy will triumph in this world. We would like to pay tribute to their courage and commitment.
Finally, we hope that there is peace with justice in Colombia, and in Ireland and we are calling for help from every Irish person to help release these men. It is an international scandal that Irishmen are being treated in such a manner anywhere in the world.
"Colombian jails are hell" says UN
A UN Human Rights report describes Colombian jails as ungovernable, violent, badly run and corrupt.
During the month of October 2001, a UN international commission visited 15 jails and detention centres in Bogotá, Medellín, Cali, Valledupar and Bucaramanga. This report will be presented to the UN in Geneva (Switzerland) in the next few weeks.
The report conclusions are similar to the findings outlined by the Colombian Constitutional Court in1998. These pointed out that the right to life, dignity, physical integrity, health, adequate food, education, work, due process and equality before the law are all violated in Colombia's jails.
"Colombian jails are hell", states the UN Commission.
The report highlights how common criminals expecting trial or sentenced for not serious crimes suffer the worst human rights violations. A study carried out by the Health Department found traces of faeces in the prisoners' food.