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19 December 2002 Edition

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Colombia 3 'missing' for 48 hours

After 48 hours silence, the families of the Colombia Three discovered on Tuesday night that the men were still alive. Niall Connoly phoned relatives and confirmed that they had been moved to a high-security prison in Combita, 87 kms north of the country's capital Bogota.

Catríona Ruane, co-ordinator of the Bring Them Home campaign, said that prior to this the last contact she had had with the men was on Saturday evening. The Colombian authorities refused to tell the families where the men were.

"We are very concerned," she told An Phoblacht on Wednesday 18 December. "The Irish Government and ourselves had a meeting with the Colombian vice-minister for justice on the 29th November, and we were assured that the men wouldn't be moved. It is very important that the men stay in Bogota, as this is where their lawyers can see them, and it is also where they can receive visits from the consular, and their family".

"Niall told me that he was escorted to the phones from which he rang me under armed guard, and that right-wing paramilitaries were shouting abuse and threats at him and the others."

Catríona said that the three men are also asking to be moved from the prison, and fear for their safety.

"I spoke to the Irish government yesterday morning, and they said that they will be in contact with the Colombian authorities to ask for the three men to be returned to Bogota," Catriona added.


'The hell of El Modelo'

Finian McGrath, the Independent TD for Dublin North-Central, travelled to Columbia last week to act as an observer, with others including Seán Crowe, Sinn Féin TD and Senator Mary White of Fianna Fáil, at the trial of Martin McCauley, Niall Connolly and Jim Monaghan. McGrath writes exclusively for An Phoblacht about his visit to the notorious El Modelo prison.

I thought about those in the media and the Dáil who had tried to discourage me from coming to Columbia to act as an observer, using all sorts of spurious arguments and attempting to score political points. The succour we offered these three men was the support to which they were entitled, the concern of fellow human beings, fellow Irish citizens, anxious for their safety and that they would get a fair trial.
We sat in a small café, opposite the prison, waiting for clearance from the authorities for our visit. El Modelo is situated in an extremely poor quarter of Bogota and the people around us represented the marginalized in this divided and dangerous country.

Thousands have been displaced from the countryside. The city, at eight million people, is overcrowded and unemployment is high, despite this being an oil-rich country. The dispossessed make their living through hawking goods on street corners or begging. Yet, once we were allowed into the prison, just metres away from this poverty and deprivation, we were met by guards armed with weapons that must have cost a small fortune.

After being searched and finger-printed, we passed through the security checks to the inner prison, a dull, grey, gloomy place, where you could feel the tension. Prisoners convicted for, or on remand for criminal offences stared out at us with blank faces from behind bars. When we reached the compound, or cage, where the Irishmen were detained, we were met by three faces familiar from the Bring Them Home campaign. They were absolutely elated that we had come. We joked with Martin McCauley who had put on a shirt and tie to greet us. All of them seemed more concerned about our safety than their own personal situation.

It was at that moment that I knew that I had made the right decision to travel. I thought about those in the media and the Dáil who had tried to discourage me from coming to Columbia to act as an observer, using all sorts of spurious arguments and attempting to score political points. The succour we offered these three men was the support to which they were entitled, the concern of fellow human beings, fellow Irish citizens, anxious for their safety and that they would get a fair trial.

Conditions in the jail are appalling. In a wing designed for 14 they live along with 40 other prisoners, most of whom belong to the FARC guerrilla movement. Above them is a landing occupied by right-wing paramilitary prisoners who just last year launched an armed attack on the FARC prisoners. I was standing on the spot where prisoners were shot and killed.

We sat in white plastic chairs (up until a few months ago the men had little furniture and had to sleep on the floor) and chatted for about half an hour. A radio played in the background. The other prisoners nodded to the strangers from Ireland and gave us warm smiles. We were handed a cup of coffee. Some men sat weaving or chatting in groups. Others began preparing lunch-cooked beans and potatoes that they had made especially for us. The prisoners have nothing to do but wait. I met one man who had been on remand for ten years-never having faced trial. I thought of what former Beirut hostage Brian Keenan had said: "Concentration on human rights ensures that victims are no longer faceless. They have names and addresses and families and relatives who await the help of those who call themselves free, educated and compassionate. And that, I hope, is all of us."

As we stood talking one of the prisoners pointed to a manhole cover on which we were standing and it was explained that this was where the paramilitaries had dumped the bodies of some of their victims, having cut them up first. In that incident 32 prisoners were killed. In a later incident another ten were to die, most of them at the hands of the 3,000-strong right-wing paramilitary prisoners.

Colombian lawyers, trade union and students spokespersons, agricultural workers, Amnesty International, amongst many other organisations, have all tried to tell the world about the truth of the conflict in Colombia whilst most governments have looked the other way. Since 1986, 3,800 trade unionists have been assassinated, 178 in the past year alone. Besides the deaths in the prisons there were worse horror stories about the outside.

The FARC jail commander, Julio Serpa, told us that when his movement had attempted to enter democratic politics four thousand of their candidates were assassinated by the government forces or those right-wing paramilitaries acting as their surrogates. Despite that, and the war that followed, they still want inclusive dialogue and to develop a peace process. He was an impressive figure whom in any other circumstances, I thought, would be a senior civil servant, a bank manager or even a backbench TD! However, this is Colombia and anyone left of centre is an 'extremist' or a 'legitimate target' for the death squads.

The time passed quickly and we soon had to leave. We said our goodbyes and it was sad to leave them behind, amidst such danger. It occurred to me that their smiles were now struck for our benefit. We were leaving. They were staying. We walked nervously through the corridors of the right-wing paramilitaries and to tell the truth it was nerve-wracking and I could not wait to get to the main prison gate. However we were stopped in our tracks. A prison guard told Paul Hill (of the Guildford Four, another observer), that another Irish citizen had just been detained. Paul was determined that we see him. We were taken from the maximum security wing to the detention area for petty criminals.

We looked into the cage, which was about the size of a small sitting room. It was filled with what must have been about 50 prisoners. The one European stood out a mile. He stepped forward and Paul asked him did he want us to contact the Irish embassy. But he said he was from Belgium and Paul said he would do what he could.

As we walked away we slowly glanced back at the glaring eyes of 50 desperate, ill-dressed and undernourished prisoners.

It was a relief to get away from the hell of El Modelo.

 Bazaar boost for Colombia defence fund

A bazaar held in West Belfast on Saturday 14 December raised over £2,000 for the Colombia 3 Defence Fund.

Hundreds of people attended the bazaar and spent freely it seems at the many stalls. Items on sale ranged from groceries to toys and fancy household goods. However, the big attraction for the day was Kate Clark's tombola (or rickety wheel to you and me). The many superb prizes on offer attracted many punters prepared to roll up and take their chance.

Mary Maginn, one of the organisers of the bazaar told An Phoblacht, "the day was fantastic, the response from people was brilliant and as well as the money we raised, the fact that so many people supported the bazaar is a sign of the good will people in Belfast feel for Niall, Jim and Martin. We can't thank people enough, those who donated stuff, who collected it and of course the Felons for their support on the day.


An Phoblacht
44 Parnell Sq.
Dublin 1