Questions remain on the extradition fight that shook the peace process

The men wanted by Colombia have kept a low profile since their much-hyped return, writes Colm Heatley.

AS entrances go, it couldn’t have been more timely.

On August 5 last year, some 12 months after disappearing from the radar and just five days after the IRA publicly ended its armed campaign, the Colombia Three announced they were back in Ireland.

Four years earlier, in August 2001, Jim Monaghan, Niall Connolly and Martin McCauley had been arrested at Bogota airport on their way out of Columbia.

They were charged with training the left-wing guerrilla group FARC in explosive techniques.

The men insisted they were in Colombia to observe the peace process, though initially they told police they were there as “eco-tourists”.

At their first trial they were acquitted of the training charges, but fled before an appeal court reached a verdict.

Being accused of colluding with South American Marxist rebel groups, especially post 9/11, was a disaster for republicans.

Washington spoke ominously of its concern over the IRA’s “international terror links”.

In the North, unionists said it was proof of the IRA’s hidden agenda, while political parties in the South said the allegations had the potential to destabilise progress in the North.

Indeed, the Colombia Three case was the first big setback for republicans in the peace process.

Castlereagh, Stormont, the Northern Bank Robbery and the McCartney killing would follow.

However, from the outset, the detention of the three had caused concern among human rights groups, such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.

Colombia has a poor record of protecting human rights and its civil war with FARC has seen the government accused of murder, torture and abductions.

When the trial eventually got under way, after a two-year delay, serious flaws emerged in the prosecution’s evidence.

Testimony from government witnesses who said they had seen the men at FARC training camps on specific dates was rebuffed when videos of Jim Monaghan showed he had been at a conference in Ireland at the said times.

The court accepted the authenticity of the tapes.

Forensic reports which stated traces of cocaine and explosives were found on the men’s luggage were also discredited by independent experts. But none of that seemed to matter to the appeal court.

Last August, through a network of sympathisers, the three were able to return to Ireland; a year later and only a few people know how they did it.

Since the initial flurry of activity which greeted their return, little has been heard of them and both the

Government and gardaí say the trio are free to go about their business.

Given IRA decommissioning and the formal ending of its campaign, it is unlikely the Government will interfere in their case.

In any event the men, and their supporters, argue that they have committed no crime in Ireland and that their first trial in Colombia exonerated them of anything more serious than travelling on false passports.

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