Niall Connolly, James Monaghan and Martin McCauley, who were arrested at Bogota Airport 14 months ago, are accused of giving military training to members of the left-wing FARC militia, which controls large swathes of the war-torn South American country. The group is deeply involved in the drugs trade and has been repeatedly condemned by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. If convicted, the men face 15 to 20 years behind bars.
Colombian prosecutors have already lodged a 300-page indictment outlining their case against the men. Central to the prosecution case will be the testimony of a number of informers, including a FARC driver who said he saw all three in territory controlled by the militia.
The second plank of the prosecution case is forensic, with claims that drug and explosive residue was discovered on baggage belonging to the men.
In tandem with court papers, there have been persistent leaks from the Colombian authorities, with allegations that a US spy plane monitored the three men’s movements and of radio intercepts referring to the “blonds” bringing in Semtex. This cannot be used in court and the leaks have been widely condemned as dirty tricks.
Both the testimony of witnesses and the forensic evidence will be vigorously contested by the defence, who said witnesses have alleged that either one or all three were in the country when there is evidence that they could not have been. The defence also says that when the men were arrested their bags were placed on a table in a military compound which had been used for storing detonators and other military equipment.
According to Bring Them Home, a group campaigning for the men’s release, the clothes the men were wearing were not tested and no swabs were taken from the men’s bodies, “a clear breach of accepted procedures and a fact which clearly undermines the quality of the investigation process”. What is not contested is that the three men were travelling with false documentation, in FARC-controlled areas, and two of them at least are former or serving members of the IRA.
A respected independent commentator on South American affairs told this newspaper she believed FARC had no need to import expertise in urban warfare; the organisation had enough allies in city areas to conduct a campaign away from their more rural bases.
Human Rights Watch researcher Robin Nixon said it was likely FARC were more interested in finding out about the ‘classic ballot box and Armalite’ philosophy of the IRA and how Sinn Féin and the IRA developed their political strategy over the course of two decades.
However, the prosecution allege that McCauley and Monaghan, along with an interpreter, Connolly, went to Colombia to give military training to FARC, specifically to develop a gas cylinder mortar that has subsequently killed hundreds of people, he prosecution claims the men did this with the knowledge of the IRA leadership and senior members of Sinn Féin, If the men are found guilty, the political fallout could be significant. Unionists will make an almighty racket, with the fall of the Executive and early elections a possibility, while others across the political spectrum, including in the US, will make life extremely uncomfortable for Sinn Féin.
However, Sinn Féin has been reluctant to comment on the case and has consistently distanced itself from the three men.