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Ricardo Palmera Wins First Round

Trial ends with hung jury, mistrial declared
by staff |
November 21, 2006
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Washington D.C. - Colombian revolutionary Ricardo Palmera is smiling tonight. Today in U.S. Federal Court, Palmera and progressive people everywhere scored a big victory as the jury sent its third note saying it could not agree. Dour-faced Judge Hogan was forced to declare a mistrial. As many in the U.S. celebrate the Thanksgiving holiday, none will be happier than Ricardo Palmera and his supporters in the National Committee to Free Ricardo Palmera. People throughout Colombia will be slapping each other on the back and toasting the jurors who took a stand against the sheer injustice of this trial.

The trial of Ricardo Palmera is one of the most bizarre cases ever. Palmera is a negotiator for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, the FARC. The FARC controls 40% of Colombia and has 27,000 armed fighters. The trial of Palmera is an attempt by the Bush administration to criminalize a national liberation movement. Some jurors understood this.

Amazingly, the U.S. prosecutor wanted to put the whole of the FARC on trial along with Palmera. U.S. Judge Hogan issued an order demanding the FARC appear in court. This approach was quietly dropped, in favor of a new U.S. government indictment against 50 FARC leaders. Those FARC leaders have not responded, as they are spread throughout Colombia carrying forward a revolution.

Palmera is held in solitary confinement with no human contact. Palmera’s family, friends and supporters are denied the right to visit him. The U.S. government bans journalists from interviewing Palmera. The U.S. government defense lawyer works under very restrictive rules and Palmera’s own lawyer from Colombia is not allowed to speak to him unless the FBI is present. Judge Hogan denied the only two witnesses called by Palmera’s government lawyer.

Palmera is accused of kidnapping three U.S. mercenaries. The three U.S. mercenaries were contracted by the U.S. government to work in a known war zone where their plane was shot down by the rebel army - the FARC. Although everyone agrees Palmera had no knowledge of the mercenaries until newspapers printed the story, the U.S. government is alleging hostage taking.

Protests impact trial

There is no question that Ricardo Palmera’s trial was impacted by the protests of the National Committee to Free Ricardo Palmera outside the court building. On the first and last days of Ricardo Palmera’s trial, Colombia solidarity activists and students picketed and held press conferences. They held a large banner adorned with Colombian flags and chanted “Free Ricardo Palmera! Stop Plan Colombia!” The National Committee’s loud chanting caused people throughout the Washington D.C. Federal Courts building to come rushing to see what the commotion outside was all about.

While the U.S. prosecutors and Judge Hogan did everything within their power to steer the jury towards convicting Ricardo Palmera, they could tell on the last day of the trial that it was not going their way. Judge Hogan opened the court day saying “There was a protest this morning. Some people wearing FARC insignia and chanting.” Hogan asked, “Does the government want the protest to be addressed?”

The U.S. prosecutors responded, “The prosecution finds the protest completely inappropriate. There is not supposed to be any outside contact with the jurors. Note the time of this protest, your honor - it was not at noon, it was not at the Colombian embassy, or at the White House, where such protests should occur. It is outrageous! They are here trying to catch jurors! This is not acceptable. Your honor, it shows a lack of confidence in our criminal justice system.” The prosecutor then asked the judge to lock the jury behind closed doors away from any public contact.

Not wanting to be left behind, Bob Tucker, the U.S. government’s handpicked defense lawyer, argued, “This is a big problem for us too. These protesters are sitting behind us, thinking they are doing some good. They think they are helping Ricardo Palmera, but they are misguided. They are not doing us any favors. This is not good for us. They have only hurt Ricardo Palmera.”

Tom Burke of the National Committee to Free Ricardo Palmera said, “We were pleased by the reaction in the court room to our spirited protests. Judge Hogan and the prosecutors kept repeating how three jurors saw or heard the protest. The prosecution was burning mad! The hullabaloo created by Judge Hogan only added to the shenanigans of the prosecution. At that point, some jurors saw clearly that this trial was a Bush administration political trial meant to punish the FARC rebels in Colombia. One can imagine some jurors remembering the Vietnam War or pondering the U.S. occupation of Iraq. The jury sent Bush a message: Free Ricardo Palmera!”

The trial continued after the jury was questioned behind closed doors and the three jurors denied being influenced. Members of the National Committee watched as prosecutor Kohl attacked the testimony of Ricardo Palmera and attempted to slander the FARC with every question. Ricardo Palmera never gave an inch and often turned the answer back on prosecutor Kohl - making him look amateurish. The prosecutor was able to ask deliberate, political questions, while the defense was time and again prevented from using arguments or present its witnesses judged as ‘political.’

The jury only deliberated for four days and was clearly deadlocked. Despite spending millions of dollars and countless hours of preparation and then failing to deliver, prosecutor Kenneth Kohl says he wants another round. The U.S. Justice Department, knowing these trials violate the sovereignty of Colombia, is also calling for another trial. Ricardo Palmera, victorious in this first round, will find broader support for the next trial.