Future is uncertain for Colombia Three
27/04/2004 - 07:05:08

It is not yet clear whether three Irishmen cleared yesterday of training FARC guerillas whether they will be allowed to leave Colombia.

Niall Connolly, James Monaghan and Martin McCauley were found guilty in a Bogota court of travelling on false passports but were cleared of training Marxist FARC rebels.

A court official said the men would be expelled from Colombia once the terms of their sentences had been completed.

But the Colombian attorney general’s office later said it would appeal the innocent verdicts on the terrorism charges.

It is understood the men may not be allowed to leave Colombia while the case is under appeal.

Catríona Ruane, a Sinn Féin member of the Northern Ireland Assembly who headed the campaign to have the men freed following their August 2001 arrests, called on the Government to ensure the men’s safe and speedy return.

“The problem for us, the three men and the Irish Government is that there is no safe place in Colombia for these men,” she said.

She said the men would only receive a limited form of freedom while the appeal was pending and would not be allowed to leave the country.

Ms Ruane said it was ridiculous that the men may not be able to return home until after the appeal was heard.

“It would be like the British government appealing the Birmingham Six case and then the Birmingham Six having to stay in England until the appeal was completed,” she added.

Monaghan, from Co Donegal, received a 44-month sentence, McCauley, from Co Armagh, got 36 months and Dubliner Connolly, once Sinn Féin’s representative in Cuba, 26 months on the false documents charges.

Ms Ruane said Sinn Féin representatives would seek immediate talks with the Colombian authorities to enable the men to return to Ireland.

“We have obvious concerns now about the men’s safety and are seeking an urgent meeting with President Aribe to ensure their safe passage back to Ireland,” she said.

The three had denied training the Marxist rebels and insisted they were in Colombia to study the country’s peace process.

Ms Ruane said the decision, in a one-page judgment, to clear the men of training FARC guerillas had implications for those who had criticised them.

The South Down Assembly Member 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.”

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