Three denied being involved in illegal or military activities

Dan Buckley traces the arrest and detention of the men who became known as the Colombia Three.

NIALL CONNOLLY, Martin McCauley and Jim Monaghan were arrested at Bogota airport on August 11, 2001, en route to Ireland from the demilitarised zone controlled by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in the south-east of that country.

The three Irishmen were arrested as they prepared to board a flight. They were accused of teaching left-wing FARC rebels urban terrorism techniques.

They vigorously denied the claim, insisting they were visiting Colombia to monitor that country’s peace process.

The arrests came just a month before the attacks on the US on September 11 and threw the Irish peace process into a tailspin. Within hours of the arrests, a senior British diplomat had denounced the three as IRA members, although only one of them has ever been convicted of IRA membership.

The Colombian military claimed that satellite images would prove that they were training the FARC in the use of explosives.

Within days of their arrest, the three were removed to the notorious La Modelo jail in central Bogota, where right-wing paramilitaries regularly clash with the FARC members.

According to their supporters, the men became immediate targets for attack by the right-wing factions.

After pressure from the men and their families through the Department of Foreign Affairs and the Irish embassy in Mexico city, they were moved in early September to the Dijin police headquarters in central Bogota. Although freely admitting to travelling on false documents, the three denied being involved in any illegal or military activities.

The FARC commander, Raul Reyes, told ITN television the men met him for political discussions. Its senior commander, Marulanda, claimed that the arrests of the three Irish men were part of an attempt by the Colombian military to destroy the peace process in that country.

The IRA stated it did not send any of its members to Colombia to engage in military co-operation with any group.

The high profile arrests coincided with a critical phase in the Colombian and Irish peace processes. In Colombia, the demilitarised zone was extended until January 2002 following discussions between the government and FARC.

This was agreed despite pressure from the Colombian army, recently re-armed with sophisticated weapons under the US-financed $1.3 billion Plan Colombia, which believes that it can achieve a military victory over the FARC.

During the men’s trial, which began in October, 2002, the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs - not often given to helping out suspected Provos - performed impressively and pressured the Colombians more than might have been expected.

Last December, the men were sentenced to 17 years after an appeal court reversed their acquittals on the charge of training rebels. They fled Colombia to avoid re-arrest.

Timeline

August 11 2001: Niall Connolly, Martin McCauley and Jim Monaghan are arrested at Bogota airport in Colombia en route to Ireland from the demilitarised zone controlled by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).

The Colombian authorities accuse them of being members of the IRA and of training the rebel group in explosives techniques.

The three men said they were eco-tourists but later added they were there to study the Colombia peace process.

September 2001: The IRA insists that it had neither sent anyone to Colombia nor interfered in its internal affairs. However, Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams later admits that Niall Connolly worked for the party in Cuba.

February 2002: After being held without charge for six months in La Modelo prison outside Bogota, the men are charged with using false documents and training the FARC.

March 2002: Amid mounting anger in the US about the alleged IRA-FARC connection, Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams declines to testify to a US Congressional committee on the grounds that he did not want to prejudice the forthcoming trial of the three men.

October 2002: The trial of the Columbia Three begins.

February 2003: Edwin Giovanny Rodriguez, a 25-year-old Colombian, claimed to have seen a man similar in appearance to Mr Monaghan giving lectures on bomb-making between February 5 and 25, 2001, in what was then the FARC-controlled zone of Colombia.

However, the defence team produced a video-tape of Mr Monaghan speaking in Belfast at an EU-funded course in public speaking for former republican prisoners on February 22 2001.

August 1 2003: The trial concludes after being adjourned seven times. The judge reserves his judgment until the following year.

April 2004: The three men were acquitted of the most serious charge of training FARC rebels in Colombia. They were found guilty of travelling on false passports and paid a fine.

But the judge ordered them to remain in the country while the Colombian attorney general appealed their acquittal.

December 2004: Niall Connolly, Martin McCauley and James Monaghan are sentenced to 17 years after an appeal court reversed their acquittals on the charge of training rebels. The three men flee the country to an undisclosed location before they can be returned to prison.

August 2005: The three men resurface in Ireland, eight months after their disappearance.

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