Let My Brothers Go

Issue section: 
(271)

Three Irish Republicans are facing a show trial in Colombia.

On 11 August 2001 my brother Niall Connolly was arrested at Bogota airport along with Jim Monaghan and Martin McCauley. Having visited an area ceded to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) by the then Colombian president Andreas Pastrana as part of the now stalled Colombian peace process, the men were initially detained on suspicion of carrying false documentation. The three were then transferred to a military compound near the US embassy, where a number of forensic tests were carried out on their clothing and belongings. The US official responsible alleged that these tests proved positive for explosives and drug traces. The men were charged in January 2002 with the use of false documentation and training the FARC in rebellion. On conviction they face a possible 20-year sentence. Their trial began in October 2002.

Since the men were arrested they have had problems getting access to lawyers. On many occasions their lawyers would arrive and not be permitted to enter. The Colombian lawyers do not speak English and only Niall speaks Spanish.

Access to lawyers is also constantly undermined by the permanent dangers faced by defence lawyers in Colombia, who are prime targets for Colombian state-sponsored right wing paramilitaries. Since 1998 over 25 defence lawyers have been murdered.

The three Irish men have already been tried by the Colombian and international media, they have endured a mock trial in the US Senate, and they have been the subject of prejudicial comment by two Colombian presidents. The attorney general's office has leaked every prosecution document to the press, contrary to Colombian sub judice laws.

The US Senate Foreign Relations Committee held public hearings on the three men, and 'evidence' was presented by Colombian general Fernando Tapias. The media were present at the hearing and the general's comments were reproduced word for word in the media throughout the world. However, many of the Republican and Democratic congressmen and senators present were very publicly critical of the hearings and the case presented against the men.

In April 2002, former Colombian president Andreas Pastrana stated in the 'Washington Post', 'Some months ago IRA members were captured in Colombia after training FARC guerrillas in urban terrorism.' On 11 August 2002 Colombian president Alvaro Uribe Velez declared a state of emergency throughout Colombia. In justifying an extension of legal powers to one of the most discredited armies in the world, the president cited as justification the alleged links between national and international terrorist groups. Almost every atrocity which takes place in the escalation of Colombia's terrible war is now being linked to the three men. The men's presence in Colombia has been exploited by the Colombian military to extract further US military backing. Colombia is already the third largest recipient of US military aid after Israel and Egypt.

Since their arrest on 11 August 2001 they have been held in four different jails and holding centres. 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 transferred to El Dijin, a police holding centre, even though it was illegal under Colombian law to hold them there. Following successful lobbying by their lawyers, the Irish government and their families, the men were moved to La Picota high security wing. They were moved from this jail back to El Dijin when a loaded gun was found in an adjacent cell. Following a successful application to the supreme court they were moved back to La Picota. In June 2002, following threats that their food would be poisoned, the men were unable to eat for a period of seven days.

In mid-September 2002 my brother was transferred to a prison in Combita, 30 miles from Bogota. Due to fears for their safety the Colombian lawyers were unable to visit him there and, given that Niall is the only one of the three capable of speaking Spanish, this transfer meant that the lawyers were unable to prepare the men's defence. Following intense lobbying by the Irish government and by NGOs in Bogota, Niall was returned to La Picota. Following the men's refusal to appear for the first stage of their trial in early October, a decision which is entirely valid under Colombian law, the men were subject to an assault by prison officials. On 23 October they were moved again, this time back to La Modelo jail.

There are three main pieces of evidence against the men--forensics, witness testimony and false travel documentation. Keith Borer & Associates, a leading forensics expert, has discredited the US forensic tests carried out on the men. Witnesses produced by the Colombian military have been discredited under cross examination by the men's lawyers. Allegations made by such witnesses situating the men in Colombia on specific dates are categorically refuted by defence witnesses, which include employers of the men, elected parliamentarians and work colleagues. The possession of false documentation is a relatively minor charge in Colombia, one which, under normal circumstances, would generally lead to deportation.

Despite all that has been written about this case, the men's stated reason for their presence in Colombia has been either ignored or ridiculed. In a statement read out to the court on 16 October 2002 the men again stated that their presence in Colombia was peaceful: 'We visited Colombia to get to know the people, the natural beauty and the peace process.' They reiterated their support for the peace process in Ireland and their desire to see the Colombian peace process resurrected.

We have called upon all concerned with human rights in Colombia, and Amnesty International in particular, to maintain an active interest in this case. Although our primary concern as families relates to the safety and freedom of our loved ones, an international show trial of this nature also provides an opportunity to highlight the manner in which the increased militarisation of the Colombian situation comes at the expense of fundamental rights and freedoms, further postponing the day when a peaceful and just resolution of the Colombian conflict will be realised.