'Colombia 3' refuse to leave cell to face IRA arms trial

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The Independent US

The trial in Colombia of three Irish republicans charged with training narco-terrorists in the jungle opened yesterday with the defendants boycotting legal proceedings.

The trial in Colombia of three Irish republicans charged with training narco-terrorists in the jungle opened yesterday with the defendants boycotting legal proceedings.

The so-called Colombia 3 refused to leave their cells, claiming they would not receive a fair trial in the Colombian capital of Bogota, where the case against them will be heard by a single judge.

Two former Farc guerrillas are scheduled to give evidence against the three Irishmen but one of them was said to be missing yesterday amid reports that the evidence against the three was much slighter than had been reported.

The three men could, if convicted, face jail sentences of up to 20 years. Their lawyers are expected to contest the reliability of prosecution witnesses and to attack forensic science evidence that the authorities will produce.

The three men are Martin McCauley from Lurgan in Co Armagh, James Monaghan from Co Donegal and Niall Connolly from Dublin. Mr McCauley and Mr Monaghan have a lengthy republican history while Mr Connolly was Sinn Fein's representative in Cuba.

The three were arrested at Bogota airport more than a year ago, travelling under false passports. The Colombian authorities say they had just left an area controlled by left-wing Farc guerrillas, where they are alleged to have been giving training in explosives and other terrorist techniques.

Campaigners for the three men have alleged that they have since been held in dangerous conditions in prisons mostly populated by right-wing anti-Farc activists who regard them as their enemies.

In a surprise move yesterday, the judge banned the Colombian media from reporting on witness evidence before the conclusion of the trial.

Observers at the proceedings include Paul Hill, one of the Guildford Four, who spent 15 years in British prisons before his successful appeal. After visiting the three defendants, Mr Hill said that if they were given prison sentences and split up their chances of survival would be "very, very slim".

Other observers include the Irish ambassador to Mexico, an independent member of the Irish Dail and a number of Irish republicans.

The legal proceedings are being keenly watched in both parts of Ireland, in particular because the immediate fate of the peace process could largely turn on the question of the IRA's intentions.

Opinion is divided between those who regard the Colombian incident as one of a series of events which reveal that the IRA is ready to go back to war, and those who believe that such events have a less sinister significance.

The trial is also being keenly watched in Washington, where the administration was appalled by the revelation of republican links with Farc, which the Americans regard as one of the world's worst terrorist groupings.

In Belfast, meanwhile, the High Court granted bail to two women from Northern Ireland accused of involvement in transferring money to the United States in an IRA gun- smuggling operation in 1999.

Patricia O'Kane and Maria Brogan, both from Dunloy in Co Antrim, face charges of conspiring to make money available to the IRA to facilitate the purchase of firearms, ammunition and other material.

The women, who have denied the charges, have been ordered to surrender their passports and report to police twice a week.

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