US support sought as Colombia 3 ruling awaited
US support sought as Colombia 3 ruling awaited

The Colombia Three ordeal may be brought to a close this month, with a verdict from the trial judge due any day now.

Members of the Bring Them Home Campaign were in New York last week to highlight the plight still facing the men after the end of a trial that was tarnished by political statements by high-ranking Colombian officials.

The three man have been in jail over three years on charges of training rebels in Colombia's civil war.

The head of the campaign, Caitriona Ruane, said that the three, Niall Connolly, James Monaghan and Martin McCauley, would simply receive a letter from the judge, Jairo Acosta, delivered to their prison cell. Judge Acosta requested extra time to consider his decision, which under the Colombian system he makes after summing up the evidence alone, without deferring to a jury.

The three face terms of up to 20 years in prison if the judge imposes the maximum sentence for the charge of training the FARC -- left-wing Colombian guerillas - in bomb-making techniques. But after a trial that saw the prosecution's main allegations frequently countered by video and expert witnesses on the defense side, Bring Them Home campaign members are unwilling to offer a prediction of the trial's outcome.

Leading defense team lawyer Pedro Mahecha Avila said: ``The prosecution never had an argument and no evidence on the training charge. . . . The defense presentation was precise and convincing in relation to the presence of the men in Ireland and Cuba.''

Mr Avila was referring to the evidence provided by, among others, an Irish diplomat and a humanitarian worker that showed that the three men were in Belfast, Dublin or Havana on dates that the prosecution said they were in FARC-controlled territory.

Both Irish and American legal observers have repeatedly noted in published findings the politicization of the trial by senior Colombian government officials, including President Alvaro Uribe Velez, who stated that the three men were ``IRA men,'' and the general of the Colombian Armed Forces, who, as the trial ended with an obviously weak prosecution case, called for the maximum sentence of 20 years to be imposed.

``We need the judge to be free from all pressure so that his decision is based on the law and on justice,'' Mr Avila said. It's understood that Judge Acosta has received death threats from right-wing paramilitaries in Colombia, in an effort to pressure him to impose the maximum sentence on the three men.

Observers have also called the prosecution case ``sloppy.'' Ms Ruane noted that the three men's first, uncontested charge was of falsification of documents.

The three admitted that they were arrested while traveling on passports that were not their own, but the actual passports had not been falsified -- so the correct charge ought to have been impersonation.

For the Bring Them Home campaign and the three men, the case is far from over. ``They're OK,'' Ms Ruane said of the three. ``They're very worried, of course. There is much more overcrowding in the jail. Before there was 37 in their cell area; now there is over 50.''

Ms Ruane also paid tribute to American lawyers, such as Stephen McCabe and Natalie Kabasakalian, who observed various stages of the trial and wrote commentaries highlighting what they saw as its legal vagaries, such as dubious government witnesses and forensic evidence that was demolished by testimony from another expert.

She added that the interest of Irish-Americans remained crucial in obtaining fairness for the three men in Colombia. Support from Ireland, she said, had been essential in the campaign so far -- funds had been raised by concerts, festivals and sponsored walks.

``The meetings we have had [in the U.S.] have been crucial, very crucial,'' she said.

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