Colombia Three Await Verdict in Sham Trial
Three Irish citizens known as the “Colombia Three” have spent over two years in Colombian prisons without being convicted of any crimes. Niall Connolly, Jim Monaghan and Martin McCauley were arrested in Bogotá’s El Dorado Airport on August 11, 2001, upon their arrival in the Colombian capital from a rebel safe-haven in southern Colombia. The government had ceded the safe-haven to the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) as an area in which to carry out peace negotiations, which collapsed in February 2002. The three Irishmen say they visited the zone to observe the peace talks, but Colombian authorities have accused them of being members of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and have charged them with training the guerrillas in weapons and explosives. Their trial did not begin until October 2002, more than a year after their arrests, and finally ended in August 2003. However, three months after the trial’s conclusion, the judge has yet to render a verdict, and the three men still sit in a Colombian jail uncertain of their future.
In statements they made during the trial, all three denied being members of the IRA, and only Monaghan said he belonged to the legal political party Sinn Féin. While not members of the party, Connolly and McCauley sometimes worked on behalf of Sinn Féin and in the interests of the Irish peace process, which all three claim to support. The three men say they came to Colombia to witness the peace talks that were occurring at that time. According to Connolly, “I was motivated by my desire to see firsthand another process of conflict resolution in motion.” Monaghan describes their time in the rebel safe-haven, “We spent several weeks in the zone. We talked to a great many people. We shared experiences about the peace processes in Ireland and Colombia.”
Upon their return to Bogotá on August 11, 2001, the three men were apprehended by the Colombian Army, even though no warrants had been issued for their arrest and the army does not possess the judicial authority to carry out such arrests. Exactly one month after the Colombia Three were taken into custody, Al Qaeda terrorists attacked the United States. The Colombian government then began emphasizing the alleged link between the FARC and the IRA in an effort to garner countertorrism aid from Washington. Over the next year, many Colombian and U.S. officials made prejudicial statements claiming the three men were members of the IRA sent to train Colombian guerrillas.
Six months after the Irishmen were arrested, former-President Andrés Pastrana wrote in the Washington Post, “We are fighting a multi-national terrorist network. Some months ago, IRA members were captured in Colombia after training FARC guerillas in urban terrorism.” The same month, then-commander of the Colombian Armed Forces, General Fernando Tapias, told the U.S. House Foreign Relations Committee that the three men “are leaders within the IRA structures in their field and they have been in Colombia for a long period and they are involved in training the FARC in terrorist activities.” Finally, during the trial, Colombian President Alvaro Uribe told Newsweek magazine, “We have IRA men in jail for training the FARC.” As international observers of the process have noted, these remarks were utterly irresponsible given the fact that the trial had not yet concluded.
It wasn’t only Colombian officials pronouncing the guilt of the three men before a verdict had been rendered, U.S. officials were also disregarding the “innocent until proven guilty” dictum. Six months before the trial began, Cass Ballenger, a Democratic Representative from North Carolina, told the House Committee on International Relations, “Studies of recent FARC bombings indicate an increased sophistication in bomb making almost certainly linked to the capture of IRA operatives in Colombia last year.” Ballenger went on to say, “The presence of the IRA terrorists illustrates clearly the potential for a broader international terrorist threat to the United States financed by illicit drugs in an Andean nation.”
Two weeks later, before the same committee, the head of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), Asa Hutchinson, stated, “Reports suggest that the IRA members conducted training sessions for the FARC on how to build and handle mortars, land mines and explosive charges, and the operation of missile launchers, and that training manuals and maps found in the prisoner[s'] possession in Colombia were identical to material used by the IRA in Ireland.”
Some of Hutchinson’s comments were simply not true. For example, no training manuals or maps were found on any of the prisoners. And during the trial, well-renowned forensic scientist Dr. Keith Borer refuted the rest of the DEA chief’s claims. Dr. Borer has testified in many high-profile cases in the past including the Oklahoma City bombing and is considered to be an expert in IRA weaponry. Steve McCabe, a U.S. lawyer who was a member of a delegation of international observers that witnessed the trial, said Dr. 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, different types of detonating devices, etc. The conclusion obviously to be drawn from his testimony was that the FARC weaponry was of a much more sophisticated nature than the IRA’s.” Borer’s testimony suggests that the FARC have little to learn from the IRA with regards to the type of weaponry for which the Colombia Three allegedly provided training. Furthermore, the IRA never used land mines, so it is highly unlikely that the three Irishmen, as Hutchinson alleged, would have been able to teach the FARC about this particular weapon that the guerrillas have been using for decades.
Another disturbing aspect of U.S. interference in the case is the role played by the U.S. Embassy in Bogotá immediately following the arrests of the three men. When Colombian Army Captain Orlando Pulido apprehended the men, he took the unusual step of notifying the U.S. Embassy before informing Colombian judicial authorities. A U.S. Embassy “consultant,” Anthony Hall, then conducted unauthorized forensic tests on the three men’s personal effects, the results of which claimed to show traces of drugs and explosives. The validity of these tests was later discredited in court when it was discovered that they were conducted in a contaminated environment—a military barracks. According to international observer Niall Andrews, a member of the European Parliament, “The forensic evidence provided by an official from the American Embassy in Bogotá was discredited beyond doubt.” Furthermore, a second set of forensic tests, carried out by Colombian authorities with judicial authorization, found absolutely no traces of drugs or explosives on the defendants’ personal belongings.
During the trial, the prosecution’s two witnesses, one an alleged FARC deserter, claimed to have witnessed the three Irishmen training guerrillas on earlier visits to the rebel safe-haven in 1999 and 2000. But all three defendants were able to prove to the court that they were not in Colombia on the dates the witnesses claimed to have seen them. In fact, in one instance, Niall Connolly was at an Irish Embassy dinner in Havana, Cuba, on January 19, 2000, the day on which a prosecution witness claimed to have seen the Irishman in Colombia. Given the inconsistent testimony of the witnesses and the faulty U.S. Embassy-conducted forensic tests, there is clearly not enough evidence to convict the three men of training the rebels.
The three have confessed to a second charge of traveling with a document containing false names, which in Colombia is punishable with a fine and deportation. The men claim they used false names because they have been harassed by pro-British paramilitaries in Ireland due to their involvement in the pro-republican struggle during the 1970s and 1980s, which landed Monaghan and McCauley in prison. However, the men have been free for more than a decade and the only intelligence information that the British Secret Service could provide to Colombian authorities was 20 years old. Also, the names of ex-political prisoners frequently show up on international intelligence and police lists, sometimes resulting in them not being allowed to enter some countries. The presence of their names on these lists can also place the lives of ex-political prisoners in danger, especially when they travel to countries where certain armed groups may perceive them as threats.
By any international standards of law, there is not enough evidence to convict the Colombia Three of training the rebels. In fact, according to the international observers, there is not enough evidence for the case to have gone to trial in the first place. Also troubling, is the fact that it is a trial without jury. And given all the prejudicial statements made by Colombian and U.S. officials, the sole arbiter, Judge Jairo Acosta, appears to be under extreme political pressure to render a guilty verdict in this case. According to international observer Andrews, “Taken in the context of the judge who is re-appointed every four years by the same people who are demanding the men’s conviction, this is an outrage.”
In the meantime, Connolly, Monaghan and McCauley have endured two years and three months in cramped and dangerous Colombian prisons, and now face a sentence of 18 to 25 years if convicted of training the FARC. Their trial has clearly been politically motivated, having little legal merit. As one international observer, Paul Hill, stated, “When the right to a fair trial and the presumption of innocence are denied, justice is not just miscarried, it is aborted.”
For more information on the Colombia Three, visit the website of the Bring Them Home campaign.