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The world wide assault on internationally accepted legal norms by the United States and its allies develops apace. In a nationally televised speech on September 8th, Colombian President Alvaro Uribe violently attacked human rights defenders, saying, “Every time a security policy is carried out in Colombia to defeat terrorism, when terrorists start feeling weak, they immediately send their spokesmen to talk about human rights.”
His speech was followed by a communique from the European Commission in support of human rights organisations trying to defend justice and basic rights in Colombia. But backed with billions of dollars of US military aid, President Uribe’s inflammatory speech promises no let up in the onslaught on basic legal norms in Colombia. And this is so anywhere the bogus ‘war on terrorism’ is needed to justify political repression.
The case of the five Cubans gaoled for monitoring anti-Castro terrorist groups in Miami  and the arbitrary detention of muslim immigrants  are just two of the increasing instances of concern in the US itself. Overseas, the prisoners in Guantanamo, the men tortured to death earlier this year in the US-run Bagram airbase in Afghanistan and the routine abuses in Palestine and in Iraq indicate that legality means little to the Bush regime and its allies. In the case of the 3 Irishmen arrested on terrorism charges in Colombia in 2001, people around the world have had a chance to see how the sponsors of the ‘war on terrorism’ manipulate justice for political ends.
Since September 2001, Caitriona Ruane has visited Colombia for the Bring Them Home Campaign on 16 different occasions to visit the three She has helped co-ordinate the legal case in Ireland (with the law firm Madden-Finucane) and in Colombia (with the Jose Alvear Restrepo Lawyers Collective and the Federation for Solidarity with Political prisoners). Here she gives an overview of how the case has been used for political ends.
Solo: Why do you think the charges against the 3 were not dropped given the lack of evidence?
Ruane: I think it was obvious to the Attorney General, Luis Camilo Osorio and his prosecutors that there never was any evidence against the three men, these men should never have been brought to trial. They should have been sent home two years ago. The only reason the charges against the Niall Connolly, Jim Monaghan and Martin McCauley were not dropped is that the Attorney General’s office in Colombia fabricated a case against the men and now cannot admit it. Luis Camilo Osorio has brought the office of the Attorney General into disrepute. Every human rights organisation that monitors the situation in Colombia agrees, his role in this and countless other cases prejudices the rule of law and justice in Colombia. I recommend people read Human Rights Watch, United Nations, Amnesty International and other human rights reports to see for themselves the terrible role of the Attorney General’s office.
The role of the Procuraduria’s (Solicitor General’s) office has been particularly disppointing in this case. They called for a conviction of the three men, knowing full well that there is no evidence. In January 2002, I travelled with former Irish Minister for Foreign Affairs, David Andrews and Sile Maguire of the Irish Diplomatic Corps and we met with the head of the Procuraduria. He assured us that their organisation would monitor the trial and ensure it would be fair. They have not done that. If there is a miscarriage of justice in this case they are as responsible as the Attorney General’s office.
Solo: Do you think the 3 have had a fair trial?
Ruane: No, These men should never even have been brought to trial, there is no evidence to substantiate the training of terrorists charge. During the investigative stage of the legal process, the men’s rights were totally violated. The prosecutor is supposed to look for evidence for and against the men, they did not do this. In total violation of due process they failed even to interview defence witnesses. It was obvious from the very early stages of this farce that the military were schooling witnesses in their military barracks. Fortunately for the three men, these witnesses were not schooled very well and their inconsistencies, and lies were exposed in the court in front of the world media. The defence provided the court with three videos of Jim Monaghan filmed in Ireland at precisely the time one of the witnesses says that he saw the three men training the FARC forces opposed to the government. This legal process was a farce from start to finish.
Now the trial is over. We are waiting for the decision from the judge and we are calling on the Colombian Government to ensure that the judge can make a decision based on the evidence presented to his court, free from political pressure from the executive and the military. If this case was heard in any court that respects due process it would have been thrown out months ago and the men would be home with their family where they should be.
Solo: Do you agree that the case fits into a wider context?
Ruane: I think that the Colombian Government fabricated this case, so they could get more aid from the US and claim that the conflict in Colombia is not a civil war but an international “terrorist” conspiracy. Ex-president Andres Pastrana prejudiced the men’s case in an article written while he was in Washington. He used the false accusations against the three men to try and get more funds for Colombia. The current president Uribe prejudiced the case when he referred to the three men in a Newsweek article while trying to gain more funds to fight the civil war in Colombia.
The case of the three men was also used by elements of British Intelligence and anti peace process unionists to try and destabilise the peace process in Ireland. It is important to say that the three men are suppporters of the peace process and have publicly stated that in a declaration to the court. The case was also used by the Colombian army and elements who were against the peace process in Colombia.
Solo: What has been your experience of media reporting of the case?
Ruane: When the men were arrested two years ago, the intelligence services in Ireland, Britain, the US and Colombia went into overdrive and made unsubstantiated, bizarre and unbelievable allegations. It subsequently transpired that none of these allegations were true but unfortunately investigative journalism went out the window and journalists published them verbatim without even verifying their sources or stories. It was a shameful time for many “reputable” news organisations.
This continued right through the first 18 months of the men’s incarceration. It began to change once the trial began in December 2002. Very quickly it became obvious to all the press in the court and the international observers that there was no case against these men and the manipulation and fabrication was too much for most of the journalists present to take seriously. Since then they have stopped using unsubstantiated intelligence reports and reported the trial more accurately. Having said that many of their editors have not given sufficient prominence to the story, after covering it very prominently to start with.
Early on, BBC’s local North of Ireland service was guilty of taking intelligence reports and unsubstantiated reports without even verifying their stories. That said, they have covered the actual trial fairly and were very professional reporting that part of the story. They also sent a team to do a documentary which was broadcast two or three months after the men were arrested and it exposed the faulty US forensics in the case.
British Independent Channel 4, which has a reputation for “fair journalism” commissioned a documentary which was an absolute disgrace–it was one of the worst I have seen in the two years and for me it was disappointing to see Channel 4 stoop to such low levels. In general, the English media networks are more or less ignoring the story now after the initial hysterical coverage and one cannot help feel that this is because it is not going well for the prosecution and they would look bad having to admit their initial stories were baseless.
Irish State TV company RTE covered the trial fairly and sent their senior reporter to the trial, they also showed the video of Jim Monaghan giving a talk on peace and reconciliation in Belfast that discredited one of the prosecution witnesses who said he was training the FARC forces opposing the government. But I would like to see RTE and BBC take a much stronger stance. It is obvious to everyone that there is no case, and that these men should be at home with their families. This is obviously an editorial decision, not a decision for individual journalists and I would call on the senior editorial staff of RTE and BBC to give this case more prominence and call a spade a spade. They should also be supporting calls for the men to be sent home.
I feel that a lot of the world’s media is ignoring the story because they are being “advised” to by intelligence services–if this case was going well for the prosecution there would be much more coverage of it. The men had already been declared guilty by most of the media. Now that everyone can see there is no case, the same media have fallen silent.
Solo: What is your opinion of the handling of the case by the governments involved?
Ruane: Well, the Irish Government has worked closely with the Bring Them Home Campaign. International observers and myself have had meetings with the Irish Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Bertie Ahern and the Minister for Foreign Affairs (Brian Cowen). They have quietly lobbied the Colombian Government and at times have made the odd public statement about the case. They have sent their Ambassador to Colombia who has observed every stage of the trial. The Irish Government know at every level that there is no evidence against these men.
While I commend their quiet work–I feel that they have not stood up for the rights of Irish citizens in the way they should have. They are far too timid when faced with “powerful” governments and they need to be making more public statements. It is their job to represent Irish citizens and stand up for their rights. They are not doing this sufficiently and we are calling on them to be more vocal. I would recommend that they study the way Britain helped its citizens in Greece and Saudi Arabia and perhaps take a leaf out of Tony Blair’s book.
In Colombia ex-president Pastrana and current president Uribe, as well as the Attorney General and the Head of the Armed forces have interfered in this case in a shameful way. This is hardly surprising since they tacitly support the excesses of the Colombian Armed Forces. In this case, they co-operated with a US Senate Foreign Relations hearing which violated all international norms. They used this case to destroy a very important peace process in Colombia and have illegally detained the three Irishmen for 25 months now.
In Britain, Tony Blair made prejudicial comments about this case from the start, he permitted his intelligence services a free run spinning, lying and manipulating this case to try and destroy the peace process in Ireland. He used the case of the three men to justify his decision to unilaterally cancel elections in the North of Ireland because they were afraid of what the result might be. His role in this case is shameful and continues to be.
The US government interfered directly in a legal case in a foreign country. One of their embassy officials carried out a forensic test on the men’s clothing and belongings in a Colombian military barracks. At trial, this test was discredited by an internationally renowned forensic expert Dr. Keith Borer. Official US intervention in this case has been highly irregular and in breach of international law.
For example, the US senate foreign relations committee held hearings in this case before the trial even started and allowed a Colombian general to reel off his personal opinions. Fortunately most Republican and Democrat Senators and Representatives saw this for what it was and criticised the hearings. When questioned the general was asked for evidence to back up his accusations against the men–which of course he was unable to do.
Since then the US government has been very quiet on the case with the exception of Richard Hass who said that the men are entitled to a fair trial. We are calling on the US government who are providing billions of dollars in military aid to the Colombian goverment to call for independence of the judiciary so the trial judge is free to make a decision based on the evidence presented to his court without political and military intimidation.
Solo: What has been the response from ordinary people and from non-governmental organizations?
Ruane: The response from ordinary people in Ireland, Europe, the United States, Latin America, Australia has been incredible and it is what has kept us going. International observers, politicians, lawyers, trade unionists and human rights defenders have come over to every stage of the trial. People in Ireland have done tremendous fundraising, and lobbying for these three men.
Pedro Mahecha, one of the men’s lawyers and myself have recently returned from a visit to the United States, where we met with Irish Americans, Latin Americans, human rights activists, business people, media and we got a great response. People all over the world are watching this case. It is a test case for Colombia.
Solo: Do you relate the case to attempts to undermine and destroy the human rights consensus developed since the first Geneva Conventions and since 1945?
Ruane: I think the erosion of civil liberties that is happening at the moment particularly by the Bush and Blair administrations is very worrying. Violation of law and due process does not resolve conflict, it creates more conflict. We only have to look at the situation in the North of Ireland for the past thirty years when successive British governments threw due process out the window and there was systematic, massive violation of human rights. I urge all governments to respect international covenants and abide by them. There is no easy answer to the problems in the world today but violation of human rights or suspension of civil liberties is certainly not the way forward.
Solo: What can people do to secure the release of the 3? Do you think this is part of a wider defence of basic human rights standards?
Ruane: The Bring Them Home Campaign, the three men’s families and the lawyers for the three men are calling on people throughout the world to write, e-mail and ring the Colombian Embassies throughout the world and let them know they are watching this case. We are asking people to call on the Colombian Government to free the Judge from political and military pressure and that he can make a decision based on the evidence presented to his court free from intimidation.
Solo: In the Irish context, what has been the effect of the manipulation of the case by Tony Blair and Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble?
Ruane: There have been consistent and sinister attempts to undermine the peace process in Ireland and there have been very serious setbacks. Cancelling of democratic elections by Tony Blair is one of these. Having said that I have confidence that there will be change in Ireland. Things will move forward. No one will be able to stop that change happening. This foot-dragging by the British government and their Unionist allies will not deter the people in Ireland, north and south, who have worked for years to build this peace process.
Solo: Martin MacAuley was in the past represented by the lawyers Pat Finucane and Rosemary Nelson, both murdered by Protestant paramilitaries with links to the British security forces. How do you think the case fits in to the history of British rule in Ireland since 1970?
Ruane: Martin McCauley is the only survivor of people targeted during the “shoot to kill” policy of the British government in the early 1980s. Two of his lawyers have been killed and there have been threats against his defence lawyers and their organisations in Colombia. President Uribe’s rant against human rights defenders is very worrying and extremely irresponsible. It is interesting that the very forces–the British army–that tried to kill Martin are training the repressive Colombian “security” services in Colombia today, financed by the British tax payer.
TONI SOLO is an activist based in Central America. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
1. Caitriona Ruane has worked for 20 years on international human rights and justice issues in Ireland, Africa, Asia and Latin America. She is a firm supporter of the Irish peace process.
2. For more information on this case visit www.freethefive.org
3. COUNTERPUNCH, August 16, 2003, “Bastille New Jersey, America’s Apartheid Detention Program” by Flavia Alaya.