On Trial in Colombia
By Frank Shouldice, Contributor
February / March 2003
The trial of three Irishmen in Colombia will resume on February 5 after a hearing in December ended in disarray. The so-called ‘Colombia Three’ — James Monaghan (56), Martin McCauley (40) and Niall Connolly (36) — are charged with assisting FARC rebels in a guerrilla campaign against the state government. The three men, all with links to Sinn Féin, have protested their innocence since their arrest at Bogota airport in August 2001.
They were initially accused of traveling on false passports and were arrested and detained for two days by a military unit. The men had reportedly visited a demilitarized zone in Colombia which was under FARC control at the time. The three maintain they visited as tourists and also to see first-hand the workings of the Colombian peace process. Prosecutors allege the men provided technical assistance to FARC rebels by explaining IRA bomb-making techniques. A forensic expert was called from the U.S. embassy to examine the trio for traces of explosives but there is no indication yet of whether any incriminating evidence was found.
February’s hearing follows a three-month adjournment in the case. A December hearing ended in farce when two defectors from FARC failed to show as witnesses for the prosecution. When proceedings opened, Judge Jairo Acosta read a deposition from one of the witnesses who said he feared for his life if he traveled by car to Bogota. The witness, Edwin Giovanny Rodriguez, is currently in detention on unspecified charges in Villavicencio, about an hour’s drive from the capital.
Defense lawyers demanded that Rodriguez be flown to court instead and Judge Acosta said he would put in a request to do so next time. However, when the second witness — named John Alexander Rodriguez — also failed to appear, the court was told that he was in a state witness protection program and could not be located in time for the hearing.
The three Irishmen also refused to attend the court on the grounds that they will not get a fair trial. Former President Pastrana has already declared them guilty. They are being held in La Modelo jail on the outskirts of Bogota, a prison with a notoriously violent reputation.
Art Agnew, Irish ambassador for the region, attended the December court as an observer. Three elected representatives also flew from Dublin to Bogota for the hearing but disorganization over procedure left them feeling it was a waste of time. “After spending a week here and talking to all the different sides in the Colombian situation I am very, very saddened, dismayed and disappointed by the judgement today in the court,” said Dublin TD (parliamentarian) Finian McGrath. “I found it unacceptable that the prosecution could not produce their witnesses despite the fact they had 54 days’ notice.
“I will be making my views known to the Ministry for Foreign Affairs in Colombia and I will also be giving a detailed report to the Taoiseach, Mr Ahern, the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Mr Cowen and all the opposition parties.” ♦