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5 December 2002 Edition

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Farcical Colombia trial adjourns in disarray


"Farcical" was how Sinn Féin TD Seán Crowe described the opening days of the trial in Bogota, Colombia, against Niall Connolly, Jim Monaghan and Martin McCauley. The trial of the men, charged with aiding FARC guerillas, was adjourned on Tuesday after two main prosecution witnesses failed to show. The first is actually in custody but still refused to travel, while the second, who is in a witness protection programme, apparently could not be located.

Judge Jairo Acosta, who is sitting without a jury, ordered the trial, which began on Monday, to resume on 5 February, giving the two informers another chance to claim that they witnessed the men train FARC rebels in Colombia's decades-old civil war. The defence team said the informers should not be called to give evidence again, but they were overruled by the judge, who refused to put a time limit on the search for the witnesses.

Concerned for their personal safety and that they will not receive a fair trial, the three men reserved their legal right not to attend the court.

"This trial has been a disgrace from start to finish," said the Sinn Féin TD, who travelled to Bogota as an observer. "It's like a piece of string at this stage; how long will it be dragged out for?

"The prosecution has had almost two months to get these witnesses to court. We believe the judge should have thrown out this case, but instead the three men are facing another two months in jail. We met a prisoner earlier in the week who has been held for ten years already and he has never been convicted. At one stage during the court proceedings, a journalist asked the judge a question and he answered it."

Indeed, there is great doubt that the two government witnesses will ever testify in court following the pathetic performance of the government's only witness so far.

Major Carlos Eduardo Matiz fell apart in the witness box. He said he had no knowledge of whether the three Irishmen even met, let alone trained, the rebel FARC. The only time he had seen them was on television, he said. He only offered speculation that training had taken place based on an alleged similarity between FARC rockets and those manufactured by the IRA.

He produced two Spanish-language manuals allegedly found by the Colombian army in the FARC zone, but could offer nothing to tie them to the three men. Indeed, the defence team pointed out that the use of the word 'subversive' throughout the manuals suggested they were more likey to be of military origin.

Under questioning, Matiz admitted that the only evidence he had of claims that FARC guerillas and their families had travelled to Europe for training was from media reports.

Before Matiz was called, and in the absence of the two main prosecution witnesses, the judge had tried to force the defence into presenting its case first, a procedure against all international jurisprudence and unusual even by Colombian legal standards.

Sean Crowe, after visiting the men in La Modelo jail, expressed concern for their health and safety. They are in a cell intended for 14 but which is holding 43 prisoners," he told An Phoblacht. "They are very pale because they have no access to natural light. They are surrounded by 3,500 right-wing paramilitaries. We had a meeting with the chief of the jail in her office. It was that very same office from which a reporter was abducted and raped by right-wing paramilitaries two yars ago. 50 people have been killed in the prison in recent years."

Crowe also told us of sensationalist press reports in Colombia of a group of 80 IRA men headed for Bogota to try to break the three men out. "There is a real climate of fear here," he said. "There are armed soldiers, police and paramilitaries everywhere."

He said the delegation of international observers, including Independent TD Finian McGrath, Fianna Fáil Senator Mary White, Paul Hill of the Guildford Four, Belfast author Danny Morrison, and several distinguished US legal experts, had had a number of meetings in recent days, including with the trial judge, the Red Cross and the UN; and a meeting with the Junior Minister for Justice.

"We put it to her that prejudicial comments made about the guilt of the men, particulary by former Colombian president Pastrana, should have caused the case to be thrown out of court," said Crowe.

He also expressed cncern that the Dublin government has failed to send a legal observer to the trial. "The ambassador is here and he is supposed to suffice, but he has no legal training," said Crowe. "Irish citizens deserve a better standard of concern for their human rights than the government is affording these men."

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