The case against the three Irishmen arrested last August in Bogotá, after returning from the demilitarised zone, is due to go to trial on the 15th July.
Despite what the Colombian and the international media claim, there is no evidence to convict Niall Connolly, James Monaghan and Martin McCauley of the principal charge that they face – that of training the FARC in the use of explosives. Colombian state prosecutors will present one piece of technical evidence and five witnesses. The technical evidence relies on a test carried out by the US embassy in Bogotá, that apparently found traces of explosives and drugs on the men’s clothes.
The defendants’ lawyers argue that there is no precedent in Colombian legal history of a foreign power usurping the jurisdiction of Colombian authorities in presenting such evidence, and point out that while professional forensic laboratories would carry out such tests up to six times to draw their conclusions from the results, the test at the US embassy was carried out only once. The lawyers thus claim that the allegations are not sufficiently proved. These claims are backed up by more sophisticated tests carried out by the Colombian Internal Security Police (DAS) and the Institute of Legal Medicine, all of which found no traces of either explosives or drugs on the clothing in question.
The five witnesses presented by the state are similarly weak. Three of them actually back up the testimony of the defendants. Of the two remaining witnesses, one, the Inspector of Police in San Vincente de Caguan (principal town of the demilitarised zone) never actually saw any of the Irishmen, but learned about their presence, through of all things, the television. The final witness, a 19 year old deserter from the FARC, who claims to have been the driver of Joaquin Gomez, one of the FARC’s chief negotiators, presents confused and contradictory testimony.
The dates of the Irishmen’s alleged visits to Colombia change with each statement given by the witness. Similarly, his recollections of the explosives courses that the men are alleged to have taught, are contradictory. In some statements the witness claims to have been a student on the courses, on others he says that he did not actually attend himself, but merely heard about them.
This remarkably flimsy evidence should in no way be sufficient to convict the men of the charges they face. However when defence lawyer Pedro Mahecha from the Jose Alvear Restrepo Lawyers Collective who represent one of the men, was asked how the case could possibly be lost, he replied that the overt politicisation of the case, and the pressure exerted by the Colombian and US governments on the judicial system to abandon their independence, was gravely endangering the possibility of a fair trial, and had already made a mockery of the men’s right to the presumption of innocence.
The US House of Representatives’ Foreign Affairs Committee public investigation into the alleged links between the FARC and the IRA, last April, is a case in point. Justified as a necessary tool in the US ‘war on terror’ it was in fact a case of unwarranted meddling in the affairs of another country. Neither the FARC nor the IRA have ever carried out a single action against the United States. It was also a dangerous pseudo judicial process, the aim of which appeared to be to condemn the three men in Colombia before their actual trial had taken place. Congress heard wild allegations from ‘star witness’ General Fernando Tapias, head of the Colombian armed forces, regarding the men held in Bogotá. No representatives of the FARC, the IRA or Sinn Fein attended.
Defence lawyers in Colombia were prevented from clarifying or refuting these allegations, by the sub judice nature of the case, that prohibits public speculation regarding a case before it has come to trial. The highly politicised process of condemnation at the US Congress was completely indifferent both to the sub judice status that this case should have enjoyed, and to the independence of the Colombian judiciary.
Further causes of concern involve the condition of the defendants’ detention and access to their legal representatives. The men are still being held in La Picota prison, even though the Colombian government has told their Irish counterparts that they have been moved to safer surroundings. La Picota is a prison, which under the Colombian penal system, houses only convicted prisoners. Defence lawyers visiting their clients have been forced to undergo degrading and inhuman treatment in order to meet their clients They have been forced to submit to strip searches, and have to enter the cells barefoot. They are not allowed to take pens or pencils into their interviews. The defendants’ access to justice has been severely compromised.
LAWYERS COLLECTIVE STATEMENT
The Jose Alvear Restrepo Lawyers Collective wishes to make public our concerns about the politicised nature that high levels of the Colombian government and the United States Congress have imposed on the treatment of the three Irish citizens who were detained by the National Army, in Bogotá in August 2001.
As many of you will already know, today in the United States, the Congress Foreign Affairs Committee is initiating its public investigation of the supposed links between the FARC and the IRA.
This treatment of a purely Colombian matter by a foreign country strikes us as completely inadequate, and we believe it is a precondemnation. This is even more serious when we consider that since the penal process is sub judice, the defence lawyers are prohibited from clarifying the situation.
The Lawyers Collective also wish to express our concerns that the aims of this investigation are unclear: without doubt it constitutes an illegitimate pressure on Colombian justice which is solely responsible for investigating the facts of why Irish citizens Niall Connolly, James Monaghan and Martin McCauley were arrested.
While the Colombian government and the US Congress develop this great campaign which violates the right of the Irish citizens to the presumption of innocence, the National Police and the National Penitentiary and Prisons Institute (INPEC) are impeding the access of these citizens to their right to a defence, and to the lawyers charged with exercising this right, they have on many occasions placed unacceptable barriers- which are in themselves affronts to human dignity- to interviewing their clients.
We ask that you urge the Colombian government to respect the sub judice status of this case, and we ask that other governments, organisations and the media refrain from issuing pronouncements of a precondemning nature about the detained Irish citizens.
The Lawyers Collective make a national and international call requesting that you urge
1) The Colombian government and US Congress to end the aforementioned campaign to politicise the case of the three Irish citizens detained in Colombia.
2) That the detained men are allowed to exercise their right to a defence, and that their lawyers are allowed the necessary dignified conditions to enter La Picota, where the defendants are being held.
Please address your communications to:
Anne Patterson, US ambassador to Colombia.
FAX: (0057) 1 315 2038/ 315 2197.
Andres Pastrana, President of Colombia.
FAX: (0057) 1 334 1323
Guillermo Fernandez de Soto, Minister of Foreign Relations.
FAX: (0057) 1 566 6444
Bogotá, 24 April 2002.