Niall Connolly, Jim Monaghan and Martin McCauley were arrested in August 11, 2001 at Bogota airport. For the first six months they were held without charge. In January they were charged with the use of false documentation and training the FARC. They are currently detained in La Picota Jail in Bogota.
Conditions of the men
Since their arrest on 11 August 2001, they have been held in three different jails and holding centres. Their lives have been constantly in danger. They were first detained in the notorious La Modelo Jail and had to be moved following fears of an attempt on their lives. They were then moved to El Dijin, a police holding centre. It was unconstitutional to hold them there and following successful lobbying by the Lawyers, Irish Government and the Bring Them Home Campaign the men were moved to La Picota High Security Wing A. They were moved from this jail when a loaded gun was found in an adjacent cell to them back to El Dijin. Following a successful Tutela to the Supreme Court – taken by the men they were moved back to La Picota High Security Wing B where they are until the present. Each of them are sharing a cell with men charged with drugs offences awaiting extradition to the US. The Irish Government, the lawyers and the campaign have made repeated requests for the men to be sharing a cell together to protect them but this has been denied by the Colombian Authorities. During their time in La Picota there was a serious threat of food poisoning. For seven days the Irishmen could not eat the food in case it was poisoned. The Irish Government and human rights organisations are monitoring this situation closely.
Dangers facing defence lawyers in Colombia
Defence lawyers in Colombia are prime targets for Colombian State Sponsored right wing paramilitaries. Since 1998, over 25 defence lawyers have been murdered. The three men are being represented by two organisations: The Lawyers Collective, Jose Alvear Restrepo and the Federation of Lawyers for Political Prisoners. These are world renowned organisations affiliated to organisations like the Organisation of American States. They work very closely with international human rights organisations. The Lawyers Collective has won a prestigious award for its human rights work from the French government. They are funded by European Development agencies. They work under very difficult circumstances in Colombia. In June 2002, an ‘anonymous’ colour poster appeared denouncing the Lawyers Collective as the ‘legal wing of the ELN’, one of the guerrilla groups in Colombia and naming a senior member of the military as a national hero. The Lawyers Collective is currently working on a case which involves this senior member of the military. As a result of the poster, some of the lawyers working for the collective had to leave the country and others have to be extra vigilant for their security. Due to national and international pressure, the Colombian government had to put out a statement denouncing the poster.
Access to lawyers
Since the men were arrested, they have had problems getting access to lawyers. On many occasions the lawyers would arrive and not be permitted to enter. The men were not allowed to have a collective discussion with their lawyers that effectively meant two of the Irishmen had no access to lawyers. The Colombian Lawyers do not speak English and only one of the men speaks Spanish. The lawyers visits on many occasions were ridiculously short given the language barrier. Indeed it became so serious that the Irish lawyer Peter Madden from Madden-Finucane had to bring the lawyers over to Ireland to work on the men’s defence.
One of the lawyers representing the three men has arrived to visit the three men in La Picota on many occasions and the prison authorities have tried to humiliate him, attempting to force him to take his shoes, belt and tie off. He has refused to do this on the grounds that it is degrading treatment for a lawyer and as a result has not been able to visit the men for the past five months.
Trial by media
The three Irishmen have been tried by the Colombian and international media. Since their arrest, stories have been written about them violating all aspects of Fair Trial. The Attorney General’s Office leaked every prosecution document to the press and this has been verified to us by journalists. There is a sub judice law in Colombia during the investigative stage of a legal process and this has been blatantly violated.
The Colombian President – President Pastrana wrote in the Washington Post, 5 April 2002: “Some months ago, IRA members were captured in Colombia after training FARC guerrillas in urban terrorism.” This is a very serious interference in the legal process for a president. It is important to note that it was written when he was in Washington requesting an increase in military aid to Colombia.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee also violated the three Irishmen’s right to fair trial when they held public hearings on the three men and ‘evidence’ was presented by Colombian General Tapias. The media were present at the hearing and the General’s comments were reproduced word for word in the media throughout the world. Many of the Republican and Democratic Congressmen and Senators present were very publicly critical of the hearings.
It is obvious that the three Irishmen are being used by elements of the Colombian government and by elements of the US government to increase and redirect US military aid to Colombia. At present, the US Congress has put restrictions on the military aid because of the Colombian government’s appalling human rights record. Under these circumstances, it is virtually impossible for the three men to get a fair trial in Colombia.
II. UPDATE ON CASE
A Prosecutor was appointed to direct the Investigative Stage of the legal process, which ended in January. In theory, her job is to look for evidence for and against the men. Unfortunately, this did not happen and this stage of the case was closed without hearing the defence witnesses. This is a violation of fair trial in Colombia.
The Irishmen are charged with the use of false documents and training of the FARC. To date the evidence against the men includes the following:
1. A test carried out by a US military official after the men were arrested tested positive for explosives and drugs, they allege. This was ruled inadmissible immediately because the Colombian Army, who arrested the three men, brought them directly to a military base near the US Embassy and called the US Embassy official before contacting their own civil authorities.
2. A US Embassy official carried out a second test and they allege that their belongings tested positive for explosives.
3. The Colombian Authorities carried out forensic tests on clothes and belongings and all the tests were negative.
4. A world renowned forensic expert, commissioned by Irish solicitors Madden & Finucane, has examined all the materials in relation to the forensics and he says there is no forensic evidence against the men.
The Colombian military has brought forward witnesses who they allege saw the men training the FARC. These witnesses have been discredited under cross-examination by the defence lawyers. They are alleging that the men were in Colombia in 1998 and in December 2001. The defence has alibi witnesses in Ireland (including evidence of employers’ records and statements from elected parliamentarians and work colleagues) to prove that the men were not in Colombia during those times.
The men were travelling on false documentation. This is a minor charge and under normal circumstances it would be expected that the men would have been deported.
The trial stage has begun. Originally, the Colombian state decreed that the trial would be held in Florencia. However, following a petition to the Supreme Court, the Colombian state admitted that it could not protect the lives of the three men and the trial has been transferred to the capital, Bogota.
A judge has been appointed. The men will be tried by one judge. There will be no jury.
The trial will begin on 4 October and the lawyers expect that it will take place over a period of three to four months.
The Colombian and Irish legal teams feel that it is very difficult if not impossible for the three Irishmen to get a fair trial given the politicisation of the case and the military and political interests involved. Therefore, they feel it is essential that there are observers at the trial. This would involve legal and political observers to monitor different aspects of the case.
The fact that observers are present would put pressure on the Colombian government and the legal process. The only hope these men have of receiving a fair trial is if the eyes of the world are watching.
International observers would also play a role in protecting the lives of the defence lawyers, whose lives have been threatened.
The legal teams are requesting that international human rights organisations, political parties, artists, solidarity groups, journalists and lawyers attend this trial.
The entire Colombian legal and political system is on trial here, not just three Irishmen. It is important that the world plays its role in ensuring that there is a fair trial in Colombia.
Colombia is currently involved in a bloody civil war following a breakdown in negotiations, important negotiations to bring about a peaceful end to the conflict. It is essential that everyone plays their role to help bring about a negotiated settlement to the conflict.
Worry as Connolly is moved back and forth
Campaigners on behalf of the Colombia Three were shocked to learn last Friday, 13 September, that Niall Connolly, had been taken that morning from the jail in La Picota, Bogota, where the three men have been held for the majority of their detention, and brought to Combita jail, three hours outside Bogota.
This was very worrying because Niall is the only Spanish speaker among the three men. The lawyers do not speak English and the men’s trial is coming up in three weeks. There were also concerns for the safety of the men, who have been held together since their arrest.
Their families were on route by air from Ireland to visit the men, the first family visit since April, when Niall was moved.
The Bring Them Home campaign made immediate representations to the 26-County government, the United Nations, International Red Cross, Ombsudman, and lawyers in Colombia, informing them of the situation.
“Each of these organisations made further representation to the relevant Colombian authorities,” said campaign spokesperson Caitriona Ruane.
“Late Friday night, we received word that the order had been reversed and Niall Connolly was back in his cell in La Picota. The men’s families are very pleased that they are together again. I spoke to Niall Connolly last night at 12pm and he was looking forward to visits with his family.”
The swift reversal of a move instigated by the Colombian armed forces is a measure of the international attention that campaigners have managed to focus on the case of the three men.
“We are grateful for the assistance of the International Human Rights organisations, the lawyers and the Irish government,” said Ruane.
“We are calling on the Colombian authorities to release the men, stop violating their human rights and send them home to their families.”
Ruane was in Dublin on Wednesday for a meeting with the Department of Foreign Affairs, where she received an assurance that the government will send a diplomatic observer to the start of the trial. She also lobbiied for the government to send a legal observer for the trial’s duration. The campaign has also lobbied all the political parties and human rights groups to send observers.