The three men are being held in conditions described as “appalling, inhumane and degrading”. The conditions also undermine their ability to prepare a proper defence
Former Belfast FÈile an Phobail director CaitrÌona Ruane is to head the campaign to bring home three Irishmen currently being held in Colombia. Niall Connolly, Martin McCauley and Jim Monaghan were arrested in Bogota in August and are being held in conditions described as “appalling, inhumane and degrading”.
Initially, the three Irishmen had been held in the notorious La Modela prison, where right wing paramilitaries, often armed, preside over a regime of torture and terror and where riots and killings are routine. In the wake of a killing of another prisoner, the three men were moved to the Dijin interrogation centre, similiar to Castlereagh.
Although the centre is seen as marginally safer, the men’s safety still cannot be guaranteed and they are being held in conditions detrimental to their long-term welfare. The cramped cells of the holding centre, less than 6 foot by 5 foot, were never designed to accommodate detainees for any length of time.
CaitrÌona, who has recently returned from a seven-day visit to South America, described the conditions. “Two of the men are being held in one tiny cell in which there is just enough room for a bunk bed. During the day the two men have to sit on the top bunk because there is no space even to sit up on the bottom bed.” The cells are so tiny that the three men eat their meals at a table in the corridor.
The cells are too dark to allow the men to read. There is no natural light, only one fluorescent bulb and CaitrÌona is particularly concerned about the eyesight of one of the men. “Every time he came out into the light, Jim Monaghan’s eyes streamed because of the strain of being kept in darkness,” says CaitrÌona, “and they are being held in these tiny cells for 23 hours every day.”
The three detainees are only allowed one hour’s exercise a day, one visit a week and a ten-minute telephone call every other day. “They are isolated, in a country far from home and only one of them speaks Spanish,” says CaitrÌona. “The conditions they are currently enduring are a violation of every international law governing detention.”
The conditions also undermine their ability to prepare a proper defence. Unlike Britain and Ireland, detainees can be held without formal charges being brought against them. The three men are currently facing the possibility of a year’s detention on the basis of unsubstantiated allegations.
“To date the men have not seen the book of evidence against them,” says CaitrÌona. “Their solicitors haven’t seen it either and yet it appears that every newspaper in the world has seen the evidence.”
Forensic reports and informer accounts appeared in newspapers within days of the Irishmen’s detention, sparking the real fear of trial by media. CaitrÌona, who travelled to Colombia with Peter Madden, the Belfast solicitor overseeing the men’s defence, said that one of the key objectives of the visit was to ensure proper legal representation was in place.
“We were able to appoint a legal team from the Lawyers’ Collective, who are linked to human rights group, the Committee for Solidarity with Prisoners,” says CaitrÌona. The group is funded by the World Development Agency Network, affiliated to the International Federations of Human Rights and has played a major part in the current peace process in Colombia.
CaitrÌona described the dangers faced by those defending human rights from right-wing elements within Colombia. “The office is situated within a high-rise complex and protected by bulletproof windows, metal detectors, security cameras and reinforced doors. It was a striking indication of the obvious danger within which human rights lawyers work in Colombia.”
Since 1998, 27 defence lawyers and human rights activists have been killed. Urgent action appeals for protection of defence lawyers have been issued by International human rights organisations such as Amnesty International and the Human Rights Watch.
The backdrop against which the detention of the three Irishmen took place suggests that they have been pawns in a wider political agenda pursued by elements seeking to destabilise the peace process both within Colombia and Ireland.
The timing of the arrests in the run up to the October deadline set for the Colombian government to reaffirm the territorial zone ceded to FARC as part of the peace process and the way in which the news of the arrests were first leaked by British Military Intelligence to anti-Agreement unionist Peter Robinson appear to confirm this view.
“We are asking the Irish government and other governments, human rights organisations and NGOs to support our call for the three men to be brought home,” says CaitrÌona.
The campaigners believe that the safety of the three Irishmen cannot be guaranteed, the advance publicity within Colombia and further abroad has detrimentally affected the legal process and the conditions under which the three men are being held are unacceptable.
“The families have met Brian Cowen and they have urged him to do everything in his power to bring them home,” says CaitrÌona. “Over the coming weeks we will be initiating a postcard campaign, drawn by the three men’s children and urging support from Bertie Ahern and President Pastrana.”
Organisers intend to raise the profile of their campaign within the media by taking out full-page advertisements in Irish newspapers and by attracting a range of political and celebrity sponsors. Among hundreds of people who have already offered their support are human rights lawyer Gareth Peirce, community worker Mick Rafferty, anti-drugs campaigner John Humphries, human rights activist Robbie McVeigh, Sinn FÈin TD CaoimhghÌn ” Caol·in, Donnacha MacNiallais of the Bogside Residents’ Group as well as singers and musicians Frances Black, Karan Casey and Donal Lunny.