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6 February 2003 Edition

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Hill denied visa as Colombia Three trial resumes

As the trial of the three Irishmen in Colombia charged with training FARC guerillas and travelling on false documents got underway again on Wednesday, the delegation of observers travelling to keep a close eye on proceedings was one member short.

Human rights activist and former miscarriage of justice victim Paul Hill, who had his passport ripped apart in front of him by a Colombian immigration official on his previous visit as an observer in December, did not travel because the Colombian authorities delayed issuing his visa. The Colombians asserted that the application had been made late, a claim strenuously denied by Hill, who remarked that on his previous visit, "they made it abundantly clear they didn't want me there".

In addition, during the trial one of the Colombian newspapers wrote an article saying that Paul Hill was a "terrorist who had spent many years in jail".

"This is a disgrace," said Bring Them Home campaign spokesperson Caitríona Ruane. "It is obvious that they do not want Paul Hill to attend the trial. During his last visit here, his presence had an enormous impact. As a victim of a miscarriage of justice he epitomised what could happen to these three Irish citizens."

The delegation to Colombia includes parliamentarians Seán Crowe TD (Sinn Féin) and Senator Mary White (Fianna Fáil). They are joined by Irish lawyers Pat Daly and Ronan Munro; Australian lawyer Shaun Kerrigan and Steve McCabe and Natalie Kabaskalian, lawyers from New York. Human rights activist Paul Hill (Guildford 4) will also join the delegation. Caitríona Ruane, Bring Them Home spokesperson will be accompanying the delegation to Colombia.

They will spend a week in Colombia and and expect to meet with senior members of the Colombian Government, the judge, the prosecution, the defence, the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights, the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Ombudsman's office. They will also be visiting Niall Connolly, Martin McCauley and James Monaghan, who are in Combita Penitentiary, three hours drive outside Bogota.

It remains to be seen whether the prosecution will bring forward the witnesses it failed to produce in December, causing the trial to be adjourned.

"We were over in December and what we witnessed was an absolute farce," said Caitríona Ruane. "The prosecution failed to produce two of its 'key witnesses', using lame excuses. The only witness that they did produce was from military intelligence and he was totally discredited on the stand. The judge adjourned the hearing and ordered that the two witnesses be brought to the court in February. Now we hear that that the Colombian state cannot afford to pay for one of the witnesses to travel to Bogota [fare is £200]. The judge has authorised that the witness give evidence in Medellin. The men's defence lawyers are appealing this and we are awaiting the outcome of the decision."

"International attention on this trial is essential," she added, "and we are bringing over lawyers from three different countries so they can report fully on the trial".

Speaking about his second visit to Colombia, Sinn Féin TD Seán Crowe said:

"Last December I spent seven days in Colombia observing the trial. From the first day it was obvious that the proceedings were descending into farce and the likelihood of the men getting a fair trial was quickly disappearing.

"Given the nature of proceedings to date, there is no possibility that the men are going to receive a fair trial."

Ruane visited the three Irishmen on Sunday in Combita High Security Penitentiary, two and a half hours drive from Bogota. Under Colombian law, penitentiaries hold sentenced prisoners and jails are where remand prisoners are held. Despite assurances from senior Colombian ministers that the men would not be moved outside Bogota, they were moved just before Christmas. Their lawyers are appealing to the case judge to get the men moved back to Bogota.

Caitríona Ruane said: "It is a very high security jail, the road from Bogota to Colombia is highly militarised with tanks, soldiers and police. When we arrived at the jail we were told we would not get in. There was also an attempt to carry out a strip search on me. I informed the authorities that I would not submit to it and requested to see the Director. We had a meeting with the Vice director of the penitentiary and eventually got in to see the men for 30 minutes, with an agreement that I would not be strip searched. We also informed the Vice Director that we expect that international observers will not be strip searched."

"This penitentiary is for sentenced prisoners, it is a very harsh regime. The three men conveyed to me that they feel very unsafe there. They are currently on a wing with right wing paramilitaries. They do not have the conditions to prepare for their trial. They have no books, there are no classes that they can enrol in. They are being denied sufficient phone cards to keep in contact with their families, lawyers and human rights organisations.

"The international observers will be visiting the three men during the week to see their conditions - most Embassies advise their citizens not to travel outside Bogota. It is hard to understand why the Colombian authorities took the decision to move the men. It would appear to me that it is vindictive and designed to hinder their preparations for their trial and isolate them.

"Agustin Jimenez, lawyer and president of the foundation representing the men, and myself have informed the Irish government about the danger to the lives of the three men. Minister Brian Cowen has written to his counterpart in Colombia requesting that the men be moved back to Bogota."

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