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Fight Back Exclusive

Interview with Lawyer for Colombia Three

a Fight Back! exclusive interview with Agustin Jimenez
by Tom Burke |
December 7, 2003
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Niall Connolly, James Monaghan and Martin McCauley in prison in Bogotá
The Colombia Three, members of the Irish republican political organization, Sinn Fein, Niall Connolly, James Monaghan and Martin McCauley arrive at the Modelo prison in Bogotá, Colombia. Victims of a frame-up, their case has attracted widespread attention in Ireland and among Irish Americans. (Fight Back! News/Staff)

Bogotá, Colombia – Tom Burke, a reporter for Fight Back! conducted the following interview with Agustin Jimenez Cuello, the president of the Committee in Solidarity with Political Prisoners, on Dec. 7. Agustin Jimenez is the lawyer who represents the Colombia Three – three Irish political activists imprisoned in Colombia on politically motivated, false charges. The three are awaiting the continuation of their trial.

Fight Back!: The Colombia Three, James Monaghan, Niall Connolly, and Martin McCauley were arrested and charged after visiting the Despeje, or Zone for Peace Dialogue, that the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) legally controlled for a few years while negotiating with then Colombian president Pastrana. What were the Colombia Three doing in the Peace Zone and what are the government’s charges against them?

Agustin Jimenez: What the Colombian authorities say is the three Irishmen are accused by an ‘intelligence informant’ who claims to have seen several foreigners in the Peace Zone training the FARC in combat. The Colombia Three are charged with training guerrilla fighters in the use of cylinder mortars.

The Irishmen say they were witnessing the Colombian peace process, in particular the prisoner exchange between the FARC and the Colombian military - investigating what happens during conflict resolution and the reintegration of prisoners into society. The Three have a particular interest in this: James Monoghan works in a similar support group - the Committee in Solidarity with Political Prisoners in Ireland - and was involved in negotiations that led to the release of Irish prisoners and precisely the need to reintegrate prisoners into society. James has written several articles on this, including writing about FARC negotiations and other processes, so as to make comparisons and analysis. Martin McCauley is an ex-prisoner who came to the Peace Zone to share his experiences and Niall Connolly served as their interpreter and translator.

Another charge against the Colombia Three is that of using false passports. This is a pretense to their arrest. Everyone understands that many former political prisoners in Ireland use false passports, especially to enter the United States, where many of them travel and have friends and family. Because U.S. immigration law has an article essentially saying if you are detained as a political prisoner in Ireland, then you cannot enter the U.S. Other countries have followed the U.S. on this. Many famous people - authors, professors, musicians, etc. - travel with false passports.

Fight Back!: What is happening in the trial now?

Agustin Jimenez: In the Colombian trial, there are three phases. First, there is the interrogation of the accused, which has been completed. Second, the prosecution presents its case. This phase has stalled because the prosecution cannot bring their witnesses to testify. The Colombian government detains the witnesses, but claims one cannot be found and the other refuses to travel to the court. The third phase involves the defense presenting their case. The prosecutor attempted to get the defense to present first. This unusual step reveals that the government has no case. Still, the judge would not rule to dismiss the case. So the trial is a stalemate for now.

Fight Back!: Does the Colombian government have evidence against the Three?

Agustin Jimenez: So far, the Colombian government has produced four testimonies from witnesses. Two say that the Colombia Three had bad motives and one says they were there to teach mortar use. On cross-examination in the interrogation phase, this witness changed his testimony and said it was a German who he saw in Colombia.

Besides the two ‘eyewitnesses,’ the Colombian prosecutor has two forensics experts, one from the Colombian Security Administration, who tested the Irishmen’s clothing for explosives evidence and found nothing. The other forensics testimony is from a U.S. Embassy official, who supposedly found explosives residue on a later test. The U.S. Embassy’s evidence led to the trial. The U.S. Embassy evidence contradicts the Colombian Security Administration evidence.

Fight Back!: What are prison conditions like in Colombia? Where are the Colombia Three held now?

Agustin Jimenez: There is a grave situation in the prisons. Since 1995, the prison population has grown tremendously. The prisons are at 300% of capacity. The conditions are inhuman. There is great violence within the prisons. Many guards are corrupt and there are many weapons and murders. Health care is poor and the food is bad. Usually the prisoners have worked, but there is not enough work with all the overcrowding. The last three years have been much more complicated, with the paramilitaries in the jails. The paramilitaries align with the drug traffickers and since 1999 have declared a war in the prisons. The political prisoners demand separation from the paramilitaries, but this only happened following a June 2001 paramilitary massacre. The news showed the paramilitaries in the prisons with grenades, guns, and M-16 rifles.

The current president, Uribe, appointed a new head of prisons who is trying to end separation. The Colombia Three are held on the first floor with forty-three other political prisoners in Bogotá. Three floors of paramilitaries surround the political prisoners. It is very cramped; they get no sunlight, no outdoor activity, and have to be alert that no paramilitaries can get to the first floor. The Irishmen refused to attend the first stage of their trial, the interrogation. The guards tried to force them, but the Three resisted.

Fight Back!: People in Ireland and the U.S. say the Colombia Three cannot obtain a fair trial. Is this true?

Agustin Jimenez: The Irishmen protested by refusing to attend the first trial phase. This is their right. There is no chance of a fair trial in Colombia. The British, U.S., and Colombian governments have intervened politically in the procedure. Two North American lawyers, a British lawyer, an Australian lawyer, also Paul Hill - who spent 15 years in a British jail, wrongfully convicted in the Guilford Four case - and three Irish representatives, are in Bogotá this week to follow the trial process of the Irishmen.