Injustice and Farce in Colombia


On August 11 two years ago three Irishmen, Jim Monaghan, Martin McCauley and Niall Connolly, were arrested at an airport as they were leaving Bogota, the capital of Colombia. Monaghan and McAuley were former republican prisoners and after their release had worked on political projects.

Jim Monaghan had been on Sinn Fein’s ard comhairle, on which I also sat, worked in education, edited a theoretical magazine in which he often wrote about Latin American struggles, and, at the time of his arrest, worked for the prisoners’ group Tar Isteach. Martin McAuley worked as an election agent for Sinn Fein when I was the candidate in the 1989 Euro elections. That is how I know both those men. Niall Connolly, a Sinn Fein supporter from Dublin, lived in Cuba with his partner and their children.

The three were arrested and found to be travelling under false passports. A Colombian forensic scientist ran tests on their clothes and bags and found them to be clear. It was at this stage that an official from the US embassy came and ran another test and claimed that he found numerous types of sophisticated explosives and traces of cocaine on the three men and their property.

They were asked if they had met FARC guerrillas (two years ago FARC and the government were on ceasefire and FARC occupied a demilitarised zone, the size of Switzerland). They were advised by a state-appointed lawyer to deny having met FARC and later said that they lied because they felt that the truth would have got them into more trouble than the misdemeanour of travelling under false passports (which should have seen them deported). Over the years thousands of republicans have used false passports for ease of travel to escape harassment, or, for example, to get around the US visa ban to enter the USA and find work.

The three were then charged with training FARC in IRA bomb-making techniques and using false passports.

The arrests and charging of the three fuelled British media hysteria and was also used by anti-Agreement and reluctant-Agreement unionists to attack Sinn Fein and undermine the peace process.

The media, quoting anonymous security sources, reported that the evidence against the men, as well as the forensics, included: satellite photos of the three training FARC in the making of ‘barrack busters’ and taped intercepted radio transmissions from FARC referring to the three men. Another report stated that they were out in the jungle testing a new napalm bomb for use in London!

The BBC’s correspondent said that no foreign traveller would dare go into FARC territory for fear of being kidnapped. Some correspondent he turned out to be. Among those who had visited and spoken to FARC were a Papal envoy, the Queen of Jordan, Mo Mowlam and the deputy head of the New York Stock Exchange.

The men were held in various prisons in Bogota and far from Bogota, making it difficult for their relatives to visit and their lawyers to build a defence. The prisoners and their lawyers were threatened with assassination from right-wing paramilitaries – indeed, the law firm representing the three, which works on human rights issues, has already had some of its members murdered. Colombia is one of the most dangerous countries in the world and Bogota is the kidnap capital of the world.

The IRA stated that none of its members were involved with FARC and the FARC commander, Raul Reyes, told ITN that he had met the men for political discussions only.

In autumn 2001 the Colombian government, anxious to resume the war and encouraged by the Pentagon who have falsely depicted FARC as ‘narco-terrorists’, up-their-necks in the production of cocaine, broke off talks with FARC and conflict resumed.

Throughout, there has been interference and manipulation by government and military officials. During the men’s period on remand the Commander in Chief of Colombia’s armed forces, General Fernando, before a Congressional Committee declared the three men guilty, as did Colombian President Alvaro Uribe. Another head of the armed forces, General Mora, during the recent trial made highly prejudicial comments calling for the conviction of the three men.

The trial itself, which ended last Wednesday, was a farce.

There were no satellite photographs. There were no intercepted radio messages. The US embassy official who filed the incriminating forensic report did not appear, though his report was presented.

The defence called Doctor Keith Borer, one of Britain’s leading forensic scientists, with thirty years experience. Having been involved in IRA prosecutions and having worked on cases such as the Brighton bomb, the Hyde Park bomb and the Oklahoma bombing in the USA there was no question of his professionalism and independence. He refuted the conclusions contained in the forensic reports and stated that whilst there were some similarities between IRA home-made mortars and FARC’s, there were more dissimilarities. He also challenged the claim that current FARC actions bear the hallmark of IRA expertise.

The prosecution relied heavily on the testimony of informers, all of which was refuted through alibi testimony for all three and video evidence showing, for example, that Jim Monaghan was actually in Dublin and Belfast on dates that it was alleged he was in the jungle training the guerrillas. Sile Maguire, First Secretary at the Irish embassy in Mexico, testified that she had dinner with Niall Connolly on 17 January 2001 in Cuba, along with Jim O’Keeffe Fine Gael TD and Ben Briscoe Fianna Fail TD on a date an informer claimed he was in the demilitarised zone.

The prosecution, military and government have worked their case hand-in-hand. In the media the prosecution made much of the fact that the defence had not been able to produce witnesses or evidence from the former demilitarised zone about the Irish men exchanging ideas about the peace process. Yet, when the defence and the men’s supporters had applied to go into the jungle and establish alibi evidence they were refused government permission.

The men had boycotted the trial believing that they would not receive a fair hearing. But last Wednesday they attended the final day of hearings and read out statements declaring their innocence and repeating that it was their long-standing interest in Latin-American affairs that brought them to Colombia.

The judge, who sat without a jury, will give his decision within the next two months. We used to complain about the egregiousness of Diplock Courts, yet no Diplock Court would have convicted on the fictions against Jim Monaghan, Martin McCauley and Niall Connolly - fictions that have been used to damage the peace processes in both Ireland and Colombia.

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© 2007 Irish Author and Journalist - Danny Morrison