Unionists and Gardai head to Colombia
Unionists and Gardai head to Colombia

The Irish Taoiseach Bertie Ahern has said the plight of the Colombia Three now rests with the legal process -- even as unionist hardliners and Ahern’s Minister for Justice campaign for their prosecution.

The three men -- Niall Connolly, Jim Monaghan and Martin McCauley -- are accused of helping to train rebels in Colombia’s civil war. Arrested in Bogota airport in 2001 and jailed throughout a lengthy trial, the men admitted using false passports but were cleared on the main charges. The men subsequently left Colombia before their acquittal was dramatically and inexplicably overturned by a higher court. If extradited, the men face sentences in Colombia of up to twenty years.

Although no extradition agreement exits, unionist hardliners have accused the Dublin government of “harbouring terrorists”.

Meanwhile, two Garda police officers are to leave for Colombia on Wednesday at the apparent insistence of the right-wing 26-County Minister for Justice, Michael McDowell. McDowell’s determination that the men should be extradited under new legislation, or else face jail time in Ireland, has been strongly criticised by human rights advocates.

The decision to send gardai came after two days of contradictory statements from Minister for Justice Michael McDowell and the Garda’s senior spokesman.

On Wednesday, Mr McDowell briefed the Cabinet to the effect that the Garda would “probably” visit Colombia, only for the Garda to counter that such a trip was merely one of many “possible” options.

On Thursday morning, Mr McDowell said such a visit was now “certain”, only for the spokesman for Garda Commissioner Noel Conroy to indicate that it was not, and that the decision had not been made on whether or not to send officers.

Last month, Mr McDowell and his Progresive Democrats party were annoyed that the Gardai released the three men after they presented themselves for questioning.

The gardai are reported to be irritated at Progressive Democrat demands for “action” in the case. These included demands that the men be arrested, when there appeared to be no legal basis for their arrest.

It is also understood that gardai were irritated at Mr McDowell’s demands for detailed briefings on the investigation, which they believe suggested the investigation was under political supervision.

The Progressive Democrats have accused Sinn Féin of orchestrating the men’s return to Ireland in a “blaze of publicity”.

Sinn Féin’s Dublin MEP Marylou McDonald this week denied her party had advance knowledge of the men’s return.

“To kind of endow Sinn Féin with the abilities to stage manage all of this is rather overstating things, to be perfectly frank,” she said in a newspaper interview.

She said the general public was relieved that the men had not come to any harm. “I think the return home of the men did not create a crisis in the peace process. I simply don’t accept that. I think certainly if you have over-reaction and grandstanding on the issue you could, of course, unsettle things. I know that that is the last thing that we need in this point in time.”

Meanwhile, Jeffrey Donaldson of Ian Paisley’s DUP party has arrived in Colombia with a unionist lobby group to campaign for the extradition of the Colombia Three.

Donaldson said he felt a bond with the victims of the Colombian rebels and described the three Irishmen as part of an “international network of terrorism”.

Donaldson is to lobby the Colombian government to send members of a Colombia lobby group to visit Ireland so that they can campaign for the men’s extradition.

“We want to support the Colombian government in their quest to have the three men extradited,” Donaldson said. “If you have an international network of terrorism exchanging training and expertise why can’t you have an international network of victims working to help each other?”

Meanwhile, Sinn Féin’s Gerry Kelly has accused Donaldson of engaging in a cheap propaganda stunt in travelling to Colombia -- and challenged his party to come clean over their role in the importation of arms from South Africa that led to the murder of 280 people.

Mr Kelly said: “This latest stunt is in stark contrast to the failure of unionist leaders to tackle the 100 plus attacks carried out by loyalists against the nationalist community over the last two and a half months.

“Rather than using the return of the Colombia Three to distract people the DUP should deal with the very real crisis in the political process created by the failure of unionists to deal with unionist paramilitary violence.

“Jeffery Donaldson is travelling over 5000 miles yet he won’t deal with loyalist violence on his doorstep.”

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