Trio to stay in Colombian prison 'for protection'

Lawyers for three Irish men who were convicted of using false passports said today they won’t pay a fine to free the men from prison until Colombian authorities provide them with protection.

Lawyers for three Irish men who were convicted of using false passports said today they won’t pay a fine to free the men from prison until Colombian authorities provide them with protection.

Supporters of James Monaghan, Niall Connolly and Martin McCauley said they feared the three men would be killed by Colombian right-wing death squads that target suspected rebel collaborators.

The three, who deny being IRA members, must remain in Colombia pending resolution of a government appeal of their acquittals on terrorism charges.

“What is the point of paying for them to be out on the street but unable to enjoy their freedom?” asked Pedro Mahecha, Monaghan’s lawyer.

“It is safer for them inside the prison.”

Caitriona Ruane, who led the “Bring Them Home” campaign seeking the trio’s release, said she met earlier in the day with government leaders to request security for the men.

“We have not received the response we expected,” Ruane said outside La Modelo Prison where the men are being held. “We are very, very concerned about the situation. It is up to the Colombian government to ensure their safety.”

Ruane did not say whether supporters had come up with the $19,500 (€16,500) needed to secure their freedom.

Monaghan, Connolly and McCauley were convicted on Monday of travelling on false passports when they were arrested in August 2001 after visiting a rebel safe haven in Colombia’s southern jungles.

They were acquitted of training members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, in bomb-making and terrorist tactics.

Mark McLarnon, a spokesman for Sinn Féin, said the political group won’t be contributing to the fines - even though Connolly was Sinn Féin’s Havana-based Latin America representative when he was arrested.

“I presume the ‘Bring Them Home’ campaign will pay them,” McLarnon said of the fines, speaking in Belfast.

“We won’t be paying a thing. Sinn Féin’s role is politically lobbying the Colombian and Irish government authorities to arrange for the men’s safe return.”

He echoed concerns for the trio’s safety.

“You could get into a situation where they’re released on to the street and killed,” McLarnon said.

On convicting the trio on the false passports charges, Judge Jaime Acosta sentenced them to prison terms ranging from two years and two months to three years and eight months, but he decided they had already served sufficient time and ordered them free on payment of a fine of $6,500 (€5,500) each.

The jailed trio claimed to have met with FARC leaders only to learn about Colombia’s now-defunct peace talks between the rebel army and the government.

The FARC and a smaller Marxist group have been battling to topple Colombia’s government for four decades.

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