In a flawed but open court, attended by international monitors, where evidence was heard and witnesses cross-examined, the Colombia Three were acquitted of all of the charges of training the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) by Judge Jairo Acosta in August 2004. Before they were released, however, Colombia's attorney-general, Luis Camilo Osorio, launched an appeal against their acquittal.
The men, Jim Monaghan, Niall Connolly and Martin McAuley, had been arrested in August 2001 by the military at Bogotá's El Dorado Airport using genuine passports, but which had not been legitimately applied for in their own names. They had just come from the 'demilitarised zone' in southern Colombia which the government had conceded to FARC during peace negotiations.
FARC policy before the breakdown in negotiations in February 2002, six months after the men were in custody was to openly invite foreigners into this area. Visitors included government envoys, ambassadors and journalists. Others included the late Mo Mowlam, a Papal envoy, the Queen of Jordan, the deputy head of the New York Stock Exchange and the three Irish men.
The Colombian military initially informed the U.S. embassy of the arrests and it sent an untrained embassy official, Anthony Hall, to conduct unauthorised forensic tests on the three men's personal effects. Because of his claim that they showed traces of drugs and explosives the men were imprisoned. However, a second set of forensic tests carried out by Colombian forensic experts with judicial authorisation proved negative and found absolutely no trace of drugs or explosives.
The men were initially charged with passport offences. Four weeks after their detention al Qaeda attacked the US on September 11th and the Colombian authorities then began claiming a major connection between FARC and the IRA and appealed to the US for more military aid in the "international fight against terrorism" as it prepared to renew hostilities against FARC.
The three men were held in El Modelo prison under extreme conditions and their lives were continually at risk. Two months previously, in clashes between left-wing revolutionaries and right-wing paramilitaries, ten prisoners lost their lives. Two years earlier 212 inmates were killed 131 were shot dead by guards and others were stabbed or lynched by their opponents with some of their bodies being dumped in the sewers.
Before and during the trial of the three Irish men two Colombian Presidents, the Attorney-General and military spokespersons set out to ensure the men faced a fait accompli by continually referring to their guilt, and prejudicing their chances of an acquittal, in speeches, newspaper interviews and at US Congressional hearings.
The trial itself proved something of a farce with prosecution witnesses initially refusing to testify. Their testimony, when it was given, was rubbished. An alleged FARC deserter claimed to have seen the men training guerrillas on dates in 1999 and 2000. Lawyers for the defendants produced evidence that the men were elsewhere. For example, Jim Monaghan had been filmed speaking at a conference in Belfast. Niall Connolly was proven to have been translating at an Irish Embassy dinner in Havana, Cuba. The US embassy official, Anthony Hall, was not called to give evidence.
In relation to the allegation that the IRA had passed on its technology to FARC the court heard from one of the foremost forensic scientists in Britain, Dr Keith Borer, who in the past has acted in prosecution cases against Irish republicans in British trials. In Bogota Borer testified, "that the weaponry used by the IRA and FARC are vastly different, having to do with the diameter of the mortars, the different types of propellants used and different types of detonating devices."
He concluded that FARC weaponry was of a much more sophisticated nature than the IRA's.
The men pleaded guilty to a passports offence and in statements to the court explained that because of harassment Irish republicans (two of them, Jim Monaghan and Martin McAuley are former prisoners) often travelled under false documentation. They had gone to Colombia to study the peace process, they said.
In the last thirty years thousands of people have falsely applied for Irish and British passports for a variety of reasons. Many young Irish people did so in order that they could enter and work in the USA. Republican escapees have used false passports to enter and settle in other countries. Having been denied a visa to the USA I was once arrested trying to cross the border from Canada using Polish ID simply to speak at an Irish NORAID function. So, there is nothing necessarily subversive about travelling under a false passport.
In August 2004 the Colombia Three were acquitted of the most serious charges and found guilty of using false passports. Having served time on remand the men were released but the Colombian government lodged an appeal.
The appeal was heard in private before three judges. The lawyers of the men were not allowed any representation only the Attorney-General's office. At the end of this secret hearing the men were found guilty of training FARC and sentenced to 17 years imprisonment. One of the three, Judge Jorge Enrique Torres, later said, "I was overwhelmed by the countless amount of technical evidence used in this case that was questionable." None of the evidence gave a 'certainty' that they had been training FARC, he said.
By then the Colombia Three had escaped and a few weeks ago emerged safe and sound in Ireland. Unionists, Fine Gael, the Progressive Democrats and reactionary sections of the media were united in their anger, outrage and in their demands.
The brutality of the Colombian government, its collaboration with right-wing death squads, the murders of journalists and trade unionists, the corruption of its judicial process, have all been set aside. As far as they are concerned the Colombia Three either should voluntarily go back to Colombia, should be forced to go back by Sinn Féin, should be arrested and extradited back to Colombia (even though and for good moral and legal reasons there is no extradition treaty) or should be forced to serve 17 years in Ireland.
The reactions are telling about the values of those parties and their spokespersons.
Colombia features regularly in damning reports by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch in relation to human rights abuses. One pro-government death squad killed 200 people and displaced 10,000. It invaded El Salado village and over two days tortured, garrotted, stabbed, decapitated, and shot residents. Witnesses told investigators that they tied one six-year-old girl to a pole and suffocated her with a plastic bag. One woman was reportedly gang-raped. While these atrocities were being carried out, the Colombian navy's First Brigade maintained roadblocks around El Salado that prevented the International Committee of the Red Cross and others from entering.
Michael McDowell, the Republic's Minister for Justice, is seeking ways to return the Colombia Three into the arms of Colombia's Attorney General, Luis Camilo Osorio. The first thing Osorio did upon taking office was to fire the prosecutors who had indicted General Rito Alejo del Rio on charges of collusion with paramilitary death squads. He absolved del Rio of all crimes. Osorio announced, "No longer will human rights organisations dictate who we investigate."
In prison the Colombia Three were threatened with death and there was a strong possibility that they would have been murdered, as were other inmates.
Those who call for them to be forcibly returned to jail are well aware of that. They are full of hate and blind to reason when it comes to discussing justice for Irish republicans. They would have sent Paul Hill back to jail or the Birmingham Six had they escaped and sought refuge in Ireland.
But they are powerless in this case, thank God. So they better get used to seeing Jim Monaghan, Martin McAuley and Niall Connolly dandering around the streets of Dublin!