The three Irishmen known as the Colombia 3 remain in jeopardy in Bogota this evening despite being cleared of the principal charges against them today.
The Colombian Attorney General’s office has said it will appeal today’s ruling that found the three innocent on charges of training left-wing rebels in the country’s civil war.
Niall Connolly, James Monaghan and Martin McCauley were found guilty of travelling on false passports and received jail time less than or equal to their time served.
However, there are grave fears that an assassination attempt could be made on the men before or during their planned deportation from the country, which it is understood, should follow their payment of a $5,000 fine.
“Their lawyers will ask the judge to free them immediately and let them leave Colombia because of the high risk to their lives,” a lawyer for one of the three, Jose Luis Velasco, said.
“They have been used as guinea pigs in a political game involving military intelligence from the United States, Colombia and Britain,” said Velasco.
But a spokeswoman for the Attorney General Luis Camilo Osorio’s office said the men would not be able to leave Colombia while the case is under appeal. Lawyers for the men are currently in negotiations to ensure that early expectations for a swift release and return will be realised.
The men were arrested at Bogota airport in August 2001 amid a blaze of prejudicial news coverage and disinformation inspired by the Colombian, British and U.S. governments.
After testimony of Colombian Army informers was firmly repudiated at the trial, and forensic evidence was discredited, the long-delayed and lengthy trial of the men all but collapsed.
However, the claims that the IRA was involved in international terrorism caused considerable damage to the peace process at the time, and helped to collapse the political institutions in the North of Ireland.
Republicans accused the RUC police (now PSNI) and ‘securocrats’ of using the men as political pawns to undermine opposition to British rule.
Today’s decision by Judge Jairo Acosta was a big blow to the Colombian government and military, which insisted the men were passing IRA technology to the FARC rebel group.
Their arrests made world headlines and was also used by U.S. militarists to increase that nation’s funding for the right-wing Colombian government and its efforts to defeat the rebels. The arrest placed immense pressure on Sinn Féin in Washington, where the party’s fund-raising was threatened.
Acosta decided both verdicts and sentences without a jury amid fears by international human rights observers that he would succumb to intense political pressure to find the men guilty on the principal charges. State prosecutors had asked for terms of up to 20 years in jail for the three.
For almost four years, the men have faced daily death threats from right-wing paramilitaries linked to government forces, including armed inmates in jails where they have been held.
The three men were said to be “delighted” and “hugely relieved” by the verdict. Supporters are now trying to arrange an international escort for the men out of Colombia and home.
There was a strongly positive reaction to today’s judgement.
Sinn Féin’s North Belfast MLA Mr Gerry Kelly said the verdict would come as “a huge relief” to the men’s families and friends and to those who have been campaigning for their release for almost three years now.”
But he added that there was a lot of anger that the process had taken so long.
“From the very moment of their arrests their basic rights were denied, there was extensive false reporting in the media and the investigation was closed before key witnesses were interviewed. There was also ongoing political interference in the trial.”
“It is vital that the men now have safe escort out of the country to come home to their families,” he added.
“This whole episode has been a travesty for the men and their families and they should now be allowed to get on with their lives in peace,” Mr Kelly added.
Caitriona Ruane of the ‘Bring Them Home’ campaign said the decision had implications for those who had criticised them.
She said: “There is a lesson in this for those who convicted these men in public statements and in the media before a verdict was even given in the court in Colombia.
“I think the lesson is that people have to start respecting the presumption of innocence until proven guilty.
“I am delighted for the men and for their families who have suffered so much. Three years have been taken from these men’s lives. They have suffered a lot in cramped prison conditions.
“I would like to pay tribute to them, to all the people who campaigned for these men, the international observers who went out there to Colombia and the witnesses who came forward and the ordinary people in Ireland who supported the campaign to bring the three back home.”
Gerry Adams also welcomed the verdict and congratulated all those involved in the Bring them Home Campaign.
Mr. Adams said: “The last three years have been very difficult for the men and their families. They have been pilloried in the media, their case subject to huge prejudicial commentary and the men’s lives have been in constant danger. And of course this case has been used to try and destabilise the Irish peace process.”
Independent Senator, Ms Mary White, who was in Colombia to hear the judgement, welcomed the ruling
“This is a great tribute to the Colombian judicial system” that the judge didn’t come under any pressure,” she said.
The DUP’s Ian Paisley Jnr said the three men had been “let off”.
“Provo tactics, honed against the people of Northern Ireland over a 30 year period, have already brought death and destruction IRA style to the streets of Bogota and Medillin,” he declared.