The Colombia Three have been freed after spending 34 months behind bars after being arrested on suspicion of training FARC rebels.
After a lengthy trial, Niall Connolly, James Monaghan and Martin McCauley were cleared in April of training rebels to build bombs, but were found guilty of travelling on false passports and identity documents.
The three sped out of La Modelo Prison in Bogota in cars last night, after paying a fine.
Journalists at the gate saw them sweep past, and prison spokeswoman Ana Maria Escobar later confirmed they had been freed.
Judge Jaime Acosta had imposed prison sentences and fines after finding them guilty of using fake passports to reach Colombia and a safe haven that had been granted to the rebels during peace talks, which collapsed in February 2002.
The trio were arrested in August 2001 in Bogota’s airport after returning from the rebel stronghold. Acosta determined they had already served sufficient time behind bars during the trial and could leave jail upon payment of fines.
However, after the government appealed against the not guilty verdicts on the terrorism charges, the three said they would rather remain in jail for their own safety, fearing they might be targeted by right-wing death squads for their alleged ties to the FARC.
The men would normally be obligated to remain in Colombia during the state’s appeal.
The Colombian government, however, said last week that it was willing to let the three return to Ireland while the appeals process ran its course – if the court agreed and if Irish authorities guaranteed the men would be returned to Colombia if ultimately found guilty.
The men’s destination was not immediately known.
James Monaghan was convicted in 1971 of possessing explosives and later served on the executive board of Sinn Féin.
Martin McCauley was shot during a police ambush at an IRA weapons dump in 1982 and later was convicted of weapons possession. Connolly was the Cuban-based Latin American representative of Sinn Féin.
Their arrests sent shock waves 8,000 miles away in Northern Ireland, where a decade-old peace process was built partly on hopes that the IRA would renounce violence.
The trio said they had come to Colombia to study the peace process between the FARC and the government, and that they had used false passports because they would have had difficulty travelling under their real names because of their perceived links with the IRA.