17 April 2003 Edition

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Colombia Three witnesses harassed at Heathrow


Paul Hill and four of the defence witnesses (Catherine Murphy, Michelle Devlin, Ros O'Sullivan and Laurence McKeown) for the Colombia Three trial were harassed by British Special Branch officers at Heathrow as they travelled from Bogota to Dublin, via Madrid and London.

When they arrived in Heathrow Airport the British Police took their passports from them. They also took the passport of another Irishman they thought was part of the group. Paul Hill told them this but the policeman shrugged and said 'wrong place, wrong time' and took the passport anyway. The Aer Lingus flight was due to leave but the Captain waited 25 minutes and this ensured that the delegation did not miss their flight.

Caitríona Ruane of the Bring Them Home Campaign said: "I have written a letter to Brian Cowen, the Minister for Foreign Affairs informing him of this harassment. We are calling on him to make a formal complaint to the British government to ensure that this does not happen again."

Paul Hill, one of the observers at the trial, said: "This was disgraceful behaviour by the British police. We would like to thank the Aer Lingus captain and the stewardesses for their kindness and support."

The trial of the three Irishmen, Niall Connolly, Martin McAuley and Jim Monaghan, was adjourned on Friday until 16 June, leaving two months before the defence can conclude its evidence, a gap that has dismayed campaigners for the men's release.

On Thursday 10 April, in Bogota, the defence continued to put forward their case; in total, eight witnesses for the defence presented evidence and more than 40 sworn affidavits were submitted.

On Thursday morning, Síle Maguire, First Secretary at the Irish Embassy in Mexico, confirmed that she had dinner with Niall Connolly on 17 January 2001 in Cuba. She told the court that Niall Connolly, one of the three defendants in the trial, was present at the dinner with Irish parliamentarians. She added that Jim O'Keeffe TD, Ben Briscoe TD, and Senator Madeleine Taylor Quinn had also attended the same dinner.

Maguire was also able to confirm that she had telephone contact with Niall Connolly at least four weeks prior to this dinner. This conflicts with the dates provided by the prosecution witness, John Alexander Caviedes, who claimed Connolly was in a Colombian jungle training the FARC during this period.

Mike Ritchie, Director of Coiste na n-Iarchimí (Committee of Republican Ex-Prisoners) began his testimony before lunch and his evidence cntnued on Friday.

Ritchie said that Jim Monaghan, one of the three accused, worked for one of the local groups affiliated to Coiste, Tar Isteach, based in Dublin - Monaghan himself being an ex-prisoner.

Ritchie provided testimony to show that Jim Monaghan was in Ireland at the time prosecution witnesses claim he was in Colombia. He also presented three videos to the court to substantiate his testimony. In one video, filmed on 7 February 2001, Jim Monaghan is seen chairing a discussion in Dublin on the theme of international conflict resolution, with a focus on the Colombian situation. Mike Ritchie himself was also in the film footage. In another video, filmed on 21 February 2001, Monaghan is pictured with Sean Kinsella, another ex-prisoner; and again on 22 February taking part in a presentation skills course in Belfast. Ritchie also submitted sworn affidavits from all of the others pictured in the videos.

Affidavits were also submitted on behalf of Deirdre Davitt, Deputy Director of Foras na Gaeilge, to confirm that she had met with Jim Monaghan on 14 February, 2001 and another on behalf of Hayden Brown Accountancy Firm.

The previous day, Dr Keith Borer, Chartered Chemist and Fellow of the Royal Society of Chemists, gave evidence. Dr Borer, a forensic scientist with over 40 years experience, challenged the explosives forensic evidence that has formed an important aspect of the prosecution case. He also challenged the claim that current FARC actions bear the hallmark of IRA expertise.

Caitríona Ruane, speaking to An Phoblacht on her return, expressed concern that two wirtnesses who were to testify to the authenticity of the videotapes were not called to testify, although they had travelled. Former republican prisner Laurence McKeown will also have to return to Colombia in June to gve his evidence.rpraised the work.

"The expense involved in organising witnesses and observers to travel is enormous," said Ruane, "and I know the men and their families appreciate the tremendous fundraising work being undertaken across Ireland on their behalf, which has been invaluable."

TD says government must intervene

Speaking after returning from his third trip to Colombia to attend the trial of the three Irishmen, Sinn Féin TD for Dublin South West Seán Crowe said "it is clear now more than ever that the charges against these three men were based on half-truths, innuendo and pure fantasy".

He called on the Dublin government to "directly intervene to secure their immediate release and return to Ireland".

"It became very clear very quickly in the course last week's trial of the Colombia Three that the prosecution case against them had absolutely collapsed," he said. "It is also clear now more then ever that the charges against these men were based on half-truths, innuendo and pure fantasy. The prosecution's two key witnesses were totally discredited by the weight of evidence, including video evidence, offered by the defence. The fact that there are over 60 affidavits offered on behalf of the defendants as well a strong rebuttal of the so-called forensic evidence against them shows that this trial was a sham and a gross abuse of any semblance of justice from the very beginning.

"Nothing that was provided to the media and published without question in the aftermath of the men's arrest in terms of so-called evidence, like the satellite photos, the forensic traces nor the eyewitness statements have stood up to any sort of cross examination. All have been rubbished.

"While I am personally confident that these men will eventually be found innocent of these serious charges against them, I am very concerned that the trial has once again been halted. It is now not due to reconvene until June. I am also concerned at the fact that other key witnesses for the defence, including those who made the video of one of the defendants in Ireland during the time he was suppose to be in Colombia, were not called to give their evidence.

"We cannot allow this injustice to be maintained. The Irish government has a duty to directly intervene with the Colombian authorities on behalf of these three Irishmen and to secure their immediate release from prison and safe return to Ireland."

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