Three Irishmen cleared of training left-wing guerillas in Colombia may have to wait in the country for several months until an appeal by prosecutors is heard.
Niall Connolly, James Monaghan and Martin McCauley were last month found guilty in a Bogota court of travelling on false passports but were cleared of training Marxist Farc rebels.
The Colombia attorney general’s office is appealing the not guilty verdicts on the terrorism charges.
Rejecting calls to free the men, Judge Jairo Acosta ruled they could not leave the country while the case is under appeal.
He reportedly expressed fears that they may not return to Colombia for the hearing if allowed to return to Ireland while it was pending.
Catríona Ruane, a Sinn Féin member of the Northern Ireland Assembly who headed the campaign to have the men freed following their August 2001 arrests, warned that the appeal process could take several months.
When Colombian prosecutors announced they would be appealing the outcome, Ms Ruane called on the Irish Government to ensure the men’s safe and speedy return.
She said it would be ridiculous if the men were not allowed to return home.
“The problem for us, the three men and the Irish Government is that there is no safe place in Colombia for these men,” she said.
“It would be like the British government appealing the Birmingham Six case and then the Birmingham Six having to stay in England until the appeal was completed.”
Monaghan, from Co Donegal, received a 44-month sentence, McCauley, from Co Armagh, got 36 months and Dubliner Connolly, once Sinn Féin’s representative in Cuba, 26 months on the false documents charges.
The three had denied training the Marxist rebels and insisted they were in Colombia to study the country’s peace process.
They have been ordered by the Colombian authorities to pay estimated fines of up to €5,300 each.
Since the April 26 ruling, the trio’s supporters are understood to have refused to pay the fines which could release them from jail because their lives would be at risk.
Connolly’s lawyer Eduardo Matyas said he was working with the Irish Government to see what type of protection they could offer for the men outside of jail while they remain in Colombia.
It is believed right-wing outlaws or even members of Colombia’s security forces may try to kill the men as revenge for their alleged assistance to the Marxist rebels waging a bloody campaign to overthrow the government.
Their arrests was one of a number of factors which undermined unionist confidence in Northern Ireland’s power-sharing executive and eventually led to its collapse.
Unionist parties demanded answers from Sinn Féin about the arrests.
But Republicans protested the men’s innocence and denied claims that the IRA was passing on bomb-making techniques to Farc for use in operations.