IRA suspects not in court for trial

The trial opened today of two IRA men and a senior Sinn Fein official who are accused of training Colombian Marxist rebels in terror tactics.

The trial opened today of two IRA men and a senior Sinn Fein official who are accused of training Colombian Marxist rebels in terror tactics.

Prosecutors are expected to present evidence the men had repeatedly visited rebels before their arrests. The trio face 28 years in prison if convicted

A dozen protesters greeted an Irish delegation chanting in English “IRA, take your bombs away,” as they walked into the Bogota court.

The delegates are observing the trial because of their concerns that the three men would not receive a fair hearing in the South American nation.

James Monaghan, Niall Connolly and Martin McCauley were arrested at Bogota’s airport 15 months ago after visiting a rebel safe haven in southern Colombia, where prosecutors say they trained insurgents in explosives and other terrorist techniques.

The three suspects, who were travelling on false passports, insist they were in Colombia to observe the peace process between former President Andres Pastrana and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or Farc.

A spokeswoman of Bring Them Home, an Ireland-based activist organisation working for the release of the three men, said the trio would not be attending today’s hearing.

Standing outside the court, Caitriona Ruane said the defence plans to present two alibi witnesses – Sile Maguire, an Irish diplomat in Mexico, and Ross O’Sullivan.

The defence will also present two character witnesses – Laurence McKeown, a former IRA prisoner, and Danny Morrison, a former publicity director for Sinn Fein – to refute prosecution claims that the men visited Colombia repeatedly, she said.

Sinn Fein has acknowledged Connolly was its Latin American representative. Monaghan is an IRA veteran convicted in 1971 for possessing explosives and conspiring to cause explosions.

McCauley was wounded during a police raid at an IRA arms dump in 1982 and later was convicted of weapons possession.

Ruane said the three suspects had not yet decided whether they would attend the hearing tomorrow and Wednesday.

She also said the defence plans to bring in a British forensic expert to refute prosecution evidence that the men had explosive residue on their clothes when they were arrested.

She expected that issue to come up during a later phase of the trial, which will most likely be held in January.

Ruane repeated concerns Bring Them Home activists have repeated throughout the months-long process.

“This case is being politicised everywhere in the world in an attempt to destroy the Irish peace process,” she said. “We won’t allow the Irish peace process to be destroyed. We want peace in Ireland and in Colombia.”

Nearby, protesters continued their chants.

“They are the delinquents that bring arms to Colombia and because of that the war continues,” said protester Steven Velasquez, 17, a recent high school graduate whose older brother was killed fighting for the army.

As many as 15 IRA members visited a rebel safe haven during the three-year peace talks, according to a US congressional report, which said the Farc has now begun using IRA style tactics and equipment in mortar and other attacks.

The Irish delegation – which includes activist Paul Hill – visited the men in jail.

Hill was cleared of murder charges in Ireland after spending 15 years in a British prison. As bad as it was serving time for something he didn’t do, at least “I never really had the sense that someone was going to kill me,” he said.

The three men have received numerous death threats and cook for themselves out of fear that their food will be poisoned, said Agustin Jimenez, a human rights lawyer and president of the legal committee handling the men’s case.

They sleep on mattresses on the floor of the La Modelo jail, where they are placed together in a high-security wing with leftist political prisoners, most of them suspected Farc rebels.

The prisoners are not held in cells - instead they share a common area with basic cooking facilities and bathrooms on one floor of the wing.

Members of right-wing paramilitary groups – enemies of the left-wingers – are on the floor right above them. The three fear an attack by them or other militia members throughout the jail.

“The chances of these three men surviving are very, very slim if they are convicted,” said Hill.

The delegation also had meetings scheduled with officials from the Colombian justice ministry, Red Cross and the United Nations.

This segment of the trial is scheduled to last three days. The next portion of the trial will likely be scheduled for January, lawyers said.

Trials in Colombia are not held continuously until completed. Lawyers work on various cases at the same time, and it is customary for a trial to take place in small segments over a period of months.

Judge Jairo Acosta ruled that the prosecution could present its first witness, Colombian army Major Carlos Matias.

Acosta also issued a gag order on Colombian media, banning from publishing accounts of in the case until after the trial is concluded. He said the ruling did not apply to international media.

The Colombian army said Connolly, Monaghan and McCauley spent about a month training high-ranking Farc leaders such as Jorge Briceno, his brother German and Tomas Medina.

The United States has indicted two of the men – German Briceno in connection with the killings of three Americans working with Indians in Colombia, and Medina for allegedly conspiring with Brazilian drug traffickers to ship cocaine to the United States.

Colombia’s 38-year-old civil war pits Marxist rebels, right-wing paramilitaries and government troops against one another, leaving about 3,500 people dead each year.

President Alvaro Uribe has promised a hard-line campaign to end the fighting.

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