Riot in La Picota jail

Five prison officers were held captive yesterday in the Colombian jail where three Irishmen are being detained pending their trial. The disturbances broke out in Patio A of La Picota, which adjoins the section where Niall Connolly, Martin McCauley and Jim Monaghan are being held.

In a brief telephone communication to Caitriona Ruane, spokesperson for the Campaign, Connolly said that prisoners in Patio B, where he is being held with McCauley and Monaghan, were confined to their cells while negotiations continued between prison officials and prisoners holding the five hostages. There were initial fears that the riot that erupted early on Tuesday could spill into the section where the three Irishmen are being held.

The protest followed complaints by prisoners in Patio A over what they claim are restrictive visiting conditions for their families and inadequate access to telephones. Guards on Wednesday morning stormed the wing to end the protest and ten prisoners are now being transferred to the North of the country.

It is believed that the section where the protest erupted holds a mixture of criminals, right wing paramilitaries and left wing guerrillas.

A spokesperson for the Bring Them Home campaign said that she had contacted the Department of Foreign Affairs when news of the disturbances was reported on Monday.

“We have been in contact with the Department and have asked that they make immediate contact with the prison authorities to ensure that the men are safe,” said Caitriona Ruane. “We have said from day one that their lives are in danger every minute that they are in Colombia.”

She also confirmed that recently confirmed medical tests have shown that food prepared in the kitchen of the jail has been contaminated with strychnine.

A blood test carried out last month on a prisoner in Patio B indicated traces of strychnine in his system. Following an investigation, it emerged that the poison originated in the kitchen, where a number of paramilitaries have access to food.

“We have sought independent medical tests in order to establish whether any of the three have been poisoned,” she said. “The authorities in Ireland and Colombia are fully aware of what is happening. These incidents confirm that men’s lives are under threat every day they are held in Colombia. Two weeks ago Peter Madden, the men’s Irish lawyer and myself visited the men; they raised their concerns about the poison with us and asked for independent tests to be carried out. Each of them is sharing a cell with men charged with drug trafficking offences, awaiting extradition. We have asked the prison authorities to move them in together”

Cristin McCauley, wife of Martin McCauley, said that the men’s families are `sick’ with worry. “We are worried sick. Coming after the discovery of poison in the food this riot makes it more urgent than ever that these three men are immediately brought home,” she said.

While the Colombian prosecutor recently announced that the three men will be tried with training FARC guerrillas and carrying false passports, the decision has been appealed by the men’s lawyers in Bogota. A decision on the appeal is expected within weeks but all this takes place against a deteriorating political situation in the country.