Minister of State Kitt’s statement on the case of the three Irish citizens in Columbia, Dáil Eireann
A Cheann Chomhairle,
With your permission, I would like to respond to the three motions before the House from Deputies McGrath, Gregory and Crowe, on the subject of the outcome of the trial of the three Irish men in Colombia.
Niall Connolly, Martin McCauley and James Monaghan were arrested in Bogotá airport by military police on 11 August 2001, and subsequently charged with two offences: providing training for terrorist activities and travelling on false documents.
During the period of the men’s detention, both the Minister for Foreign Affairs and the Taoiseach worked actively to assure the men’s safety and to ensure that they received a fair trial. The Minister met his Colombian counterpart to discuss this case on three occasions, and the Taoiseach also raised the case with his counterpart, former President Pastrana, and wrote to the current head of state, Alvaro Uribe. Most recently, Vice President Santos met with both the Taoiseach and the Tánaiste during his recent visit to Dublin. In response to our representations, the Colombian Government consistently stressed its adherence to the principle of the presumption of innocence and the independence of its judiciary from the executive branch.
The men’s trial commenced in October 2002 and the final public session ended in August of last year. The Irish Ambassador to Mexico, who is also accredited to Colombia, acted as the official observer of the Minister for Foreign Affairs at the trial sessions. The hearings were also attended by a number of other observers, including several members of the Oireachtas.
The judge’s verdict in the case was delivered on Monday last. He made his decision having considered evidence presented to him both publicly, during the seven trial sessions, and privately in written form. All three men were acquitted on the major charge of training terrorists, and convicted of the lesser charge of travelling on false passports, for which they received sentences varying in length between 26 and 44 months imprisonment. We welcome the conclusion of this long trial, not only for the men but also for their families and supporters who have borne the strain of their detention for such a long time. I hope that the men will soon be reunited with their families.
This case has received a very considerable level of consular assistance from the Department of Foreign Affairs. I should, perhaps, clarify what the role of the Department is in the provision of consular assistance. The principal concern from the beginning of this case has been to ensure the safety and security of the men. To this end, we have made numerous representations to the Colombian Authorities on various consular aspects of the men’s detention.
Secondly, we have sought to ensure that the men have had appropriate access to their legal advisors and to visits from their families and supporters. We have facilitated in every way that we could such visits from family and friends.
Our Embassy in Mexico, which is also accredited to Colombia, has assisted family members and observers in arranging visits to the men and meetings with Colombian ministers. We have also interceded with the Colombian Authorities on several occasions to support the men’s wish to remain in La Modelo prison in Bogotá.
Finally, we have stressed to the Colombian Authorities the importance of ensuring that the men receive a fair trial in accordance with Colombian law. The fact that they were acquitted on the charge of training terrorists, despite a number of public statements by senior figures in Colombia to the effect that they were guilty of this offence, vindicates the approach taken by the Irish Government in this case.
A Cheann Chomhairle,
The judgement provides for the men to be released on fulfilment of certain conditions under what the Colombian legal system terms “conditional freedom”. One of these conditions is that they are required to pay a bond, which will be repaid by the court at the end of their sentence. We understand that this bond, which amounts to 50 times the annual minimum wage in Colombia for each of the three men, comes to approximately €17,000 in total.
In order to minimise any delay, and at the request of the men’s defence team, the Department of Foreign Affairs has indicated its willingness to advance funds to cover this cost on the basis of a firm undertaking to repay this sum. This system of advancing funds to Irish citizens abroad, on condition that it is repaid, is a normal feature of the consular service provided by the Department of Foreign Affairs where people are unable to access their own funds easily.
In addition to their release from prison, the Judge has the power to permit the men to return to Ireland after they have paid this bond. We await confirmation from the men’s legal representatives that the bond has been paid and that the formal request for the men’s return to Ireland has been submitted to the judge.
I understand that the men’s representatives are in discussion with the Colombian authorities as to appropriate security arrangements, including accommodation, on their release from prison. We hope that these issues can be resolved as a matter of urgency and the Department of Foreign Affairs remains available to assist in any appropriate way that they can in this matter.
We understand also that the Colombian Attorney General has indicated his intention to appeal the judgement, and has called for the men to be kept in Colombia pending the appeal. However, it is not yet clear if he will in fact lodge such an application.
As from the outset of the case, the Department of Foreign Affairs’ major concern remains the safety of the three men.
Since the judgement was delivered, our Embassy in Mexico, which is also accredited to Colombia, has been in direct and continuous contact with the Colombian Foreign Ministry and the Vice President’s Office, as well as with the Dutch Ambassador in Bogotá, who is acting on our behalf in this matter, the Irish Honorary Consul, and the men’s supporters and families.
In all our contacts, we have strongly emphasised the importance of ensuring the men’s safety and that of their supporters and facilitating their quick return to Ireland. From our contacts, the Colombian Authorities have made it clear that they share our concerns to ensure the safety and wellbeing of the men, and are willing to provide them with appropriate protection for any time they may spend between leaving the prison and returning to Ireland. In our view, the Colombian Authorities are best placed to advise on the most appropriate security measures to take in consultation with the men’s representatives. Naturally, we share the men’s desire to see their release from prison and subsequent return to Ireland as soon as possible.
In the meantime, we will remain in close contact with the Colombian Authorities, the men’s representatives, and of course their families.
Finally, I would like to express my appreciation for the interest that many Members of the House have taken in this case. It has been a long and complicated one that has attracted considerable public interest and attention. The House may rest assured that, as from the very beginning, the Department of Foreign Affairs will provide all possible consular assistance to the men and their families and supporters, and do its utmost to assure the men’s safety and wellbeing.
Thank you, a Cheann Chomhairle