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Colombia's Appalling Vista

Justice With Eyes Wide Open

by TONI SOLO

"We headed to the area where we live and saw some bodies lying about the streets. I entered my neighbor’s house and found him lying on the ground, nothing left of him but some bones."

Abd al-Rahman Salim, Fallujah resident

"The role of a free press is to be the people’s eyes and ears, providing not just information but access, insight and, most importantly, context."

Jon Stewart, from "America" (The Book)

The circumstances around the long-running case against Niall Connolly, James Monaghan and Martin MacAuley are in many ways more significant than the case itself. The three were arrested in 2001 during the period of peace talks between the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the Colombian government. Accused of training FARC fighters in the use of explosives, the men insisted they were visiting to learn about the Colombian peace process under way at the time. In April this year, after nearly three years awaiting trial, the men were found innocent and released pending an appeal by the Colombian Attorney-General.

This month the appeal court reversed the original verdict and sentenced the men to 17 years imprisonment and fines amounting to over half a million dollars. The appeal court’s surprise verdict rested on baseless speculation as to the purpose of the three men’s visit to Colombia and acceptance of thoroughly discredited forensic evidence and witness testimony. Whether the three will serve their sentence in Colombia remains unclear since the Colombian authorities have lost track of them.

That may be a fortunate outcome for the three since it is impossible for left-wing activists to get justice in law systems run by allies of the US. The case of the three Irishmen is similar to those of Pacho Cortes in Bolivia, Lori Berenson in Peru and Simon Trinidad, also in Colombia. US law itself now seems to include many provisions – detention without trial, special tribunals, restrictions on legal support – already routine in anti-terrorist legislation in Latin America. Maybe this ugly inter-American symbiosis is seen most clearly in the lack of condemnation by most Latin American governments of US practice at the Guantanamo torture camp.

Lori Berenson

That may be because the US has itself in practice always supported crimes and injustice perpetrated by its Latin American allies. In Peru, US citizen Lori Berenson has now served more than nine years of a twenty year sentence for allegedly collaborating with the rebels in Peru. She was tried and sentenced under the illegal anti-terrorist legislation of former Peruvian dictator Alberto Fujimori.

Her sentence was expected to be declared unlawful by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights on appeal after the Inter-American Commission had recommended that she be released given the illegality of trials that condemned her. Instead, earlier this month, the Inter-American Human Rights Court upheld the trial verdicts. Berenson remains unjustly imprisoned. Maybe she was lucky to even get a trial. Members of the Tupac Amaru movement she is alleged to have met with are only now coming to trial after over twelve years in military prison.

Pacho Cortes

In Bolivia this month, Francisco Cortes, a Colombian rural workers activist, managed to reduce the amount of the bond payable that might allow him conditional liberty in a habeas corpus hearing on his detention in a maximum security prison. Cortes was detained in April 2003 on terrorism charges alleging his involvement with armed groups in Bolivia. He faces 30 years imprisonment if convicted.

For now the Bolivian authorities are gathering evidence and witnesses willy-nilly before submitting Cortes to the same kind of politicised legal process as those that reversed the exoneration of Connolly, MacAuley and Monaghan and upheld the conviction of Berenson. It is the nature of anti-terror legislation to lead to arrests first and worries about evidence later. In countries that implement such legislation – ironically, Ireland is one such country – the word of a single police officer or informer can be sufficient to put people in prison for ten years or more.

Denning’s "appalling vista" Law

In 1980, during an appeal by 6 Irishmen in the UK against their convictions for a devastating bomb attack in Birmingham, leading British judge Lord Denning stated "If the six men win, it will mean that the police were guilty of perjury, that they were guilty of violence and threats, that the confessions were involuntary and were improperly admitted in evidence and that the convictions were erroneous. That would mean the Home Secretary would either have to recommend they be pardoned or would have to remit the case to the Court of Appeal. This is such an appalling vista that every sensible person in the land would say: ‘It cannot be right that these actions should go any further’."

Subsequently, the six men did in fact win their appeal and were indeed released, paradoxically confirming what Denning had said. Ever since then, few have had much confidence in the justice system in the UK in cases of terrorism. Recently, the British Law Lords ruled that current British anti-terror legislation does not conform to Europèan Human Rights standards which are now part of British law. That recent judgement confirms that over twenty years on from the trial of the Birmingham six, people accused of terrorism in the UK still cannot expect justice.

Corrupt secret states within a State

The European experience, from Italy and Spain to Ireland and the UK is intensified in countries like Peru, Colombia and Bolivia under the nefarious influence of the US government’s contagious disregard for basic legal norms. Anyone who questions the status quo may find themselves fitted up on terrorism charges, especially if it suits wider political purposes. The denial of justice in diverse cases like those of Lori Berenson, Pacho Cortes and Simon Trinidad indicate very clearly that political interference has rendered substantive due process in such cases impossible.

In every country where ill-advised anti-terrorist laws have been passed, the end result has always been a weakening of the very freedoms the new laws are meant to protect. Often that weakening is accompanied by wild illegality and corruption. During the Irish conflict, at some secret level as a public recent inquiry indicated, the British government was complicit in death squads responsible for murders like those of human rights defenders Rosemary Nelson and Pat Finucane. British security agents and Unionist politicians alike were intimate with murderous drugs-dealing Protestant paramilitaries like Johnny Adair.

So it should come as no surprise that Tony Blair and his British government colleagues should be among President Alvaro Uribe’s strongest supporters. Since his days as governor of the Antioquia department, Uribe has long been implicated in the murderous narcotics activities of his paramilitary allies in Colombia. Similarly, it is only natural that US governments, with their long record of exploiting the covert action possibilities of narcotics in south-east Asia, Afghanistan and Central America, should help corrupt the rule of law in Colombia and elsewhere.

Media Collusion

This is self-evidently so in the case of Connolly, Monaghan and MacAuley. It can surely be no accident that the verdict overturning their exoneration came within weeks of a visit to Colombia by George Bush. From the very day of their arrest the case of the three was a political totem whose changing fortunes signalled either embarrassment or schadenfreude respectively for the various actors in the Irish peace process. The men’s exoneration in April was a serious embarrassment for the British government, especially Prime Minister Tony Blair, and for his Unionist allies.

A vivid indication of the manipulation of the case by the UK and Irish security services came with an article in the London Observer on December 19th. The article accuses another Irishman, Paul Damery, of helping the three escape from Colombia via Venezuela. Damery, the article states, without any evidence, is "on the run" for murdering an Irish policeman in 1996. So on the basis of total speculation, the Observer article linked Connolly, Monaghan and MacAuley to an alleged IRA member, supposedly implicated in the murder of an Irish policeman. The beauty of this smear from the Observer’s point of view is that the paper is unlikely ever to face a libel claim.

The Making of Non-People

It’s true there is a connection between Paul Damery and Niall Connolly. They are both men with long and honourable records of grass-roots community work in Central America. They knew each other in Honduras in the late 1980s where they worked with Salvadoran refugees on community development training schemes funded by leading aid agencies like OXFAM and Catholic Relief Services. Subsequently they worked with funding from the Irish government in El Salvador in the early 1990s, helping refugees rebuild their lives and communities in the east of the country. Connolly is a carpenter and Damery is an electrician.

Damery later worked for nearly six years with APSO, the Irish government technical cooperation program, in Managua where he lived with Karla, his Nicaraguan wife, and their two young sons. After Hurricane Mitch devastated the country in 1998, Damery worked selflessly with many other foreign aid workers to deliver humanitarian aid to stricken communities across northern Nicaragua. He visited Ireland at least once before he stopped working for APSO when his contract ran out in 1999. If the alleged case against him had any merit, why was he not arrested? Back with his family in Managua, Damery started a popular Irish bar which is still going strong.

All of this is information any self-respecting journalist on a well-resourced outlet like the Observer could find out with a few phone calls. It is true fantastic tales of shadowy intrigue make better copy than drab everyday facts. But one might expect a major news outlet like the Observer to do more than serve as a receptacle for imperial security service leaks.

This kind of reporting colludes with the most pernicious aspects of anti-terror legislation. Individuals are made non-people. They cannot find employment. They lose friends, Their families are stigmatised. Their good name is trashed. All this is done in the name of "freedom" or "democracy".

The True Appalling Vista

On the wider issue of the impact of anti-terror legislation, what is not reported is as shameful as what is. The record shows repeatedly that both courts and major media are prepared to trim their judgement to suit prevailing political whims. The way anti-terror legislation is managed in the courts and covered by the media is a ready measure of the hypocrisy of so many politicians and journalists about the liberties they say they are upholding.

That is so in high profile cases like those of the torture victims in Guantanamo Bay, or of Berenson and Cortes, or of Simon Trinidad and the three Irishmen in Colombia. It is incomparably more so in the many thousands of anonymous cases that never make the news at all. In countries that throw out the rule of law wholesale in that way (currently the worst example in Latin America is Haiti under the UN) state violence and illegality reveal the status quo as it really is, founded on cynical mendacity and sadistic brutality.

TONI SOLO is an activist based in Central America. Contact via www.tonisolo.net