The Colombia Three case should rest

Fr Patrick Ryan was charged with serious explosives offences in Britain in 1988. The British authorities sought his extradition from Ireland to Britain to face trial on those charges. The Irish Attorney General at the time considered the extradition request and concluded the extradition request should be refused on the grounds that Fr Ryan could not get a fair trial.

The Attorney General's decision was founded on comments made by British politicians which he deemed prejudicial to the chances of Fr Ryan getting a fair trail. There was a furor here and in Britain but the refusal of the Attorney General to extradite Fr Ryan stood.

The then Attorney general was John Murray, later appointed to the European Court of Justice and now the Chief Justice of Ireland, the presiding judge of the Supreme Court.

It is difficult to see how the Supreme Court here (which would have the ultimate say) could justify the extradition of the Colombia Three to Colombia to serve the 17 year terms of imprisonment to which they were sentenced by the Court of Appeal there, following their acquittal by the court that originally tried the men.

Even if the difficulties arising from the absence of any extradition arrangements between Ireland and Colombia were to be overcome (and it is not certain this could be done), the Supreme Court here would have to consider the safety of the conviction of the men by the appeal court there. And there are serious grounds for being apprehensive about those convictions.

The main reason is that the Court of Appeal found credible the evidence of two witnesses, who had testified in the original trial that they saw the three Irishmen train FARC terrorists in the use of explosives on particular dates. And on that basis alone they convicted the three men.

But on the dates cited by the witnesses, the three Irish men were able to give convincing proof they were elsewhere on those dates. One of them, Niall Connolly, was able to show he was at a dinner in Havana, Cuba, with an Irish diplomat and three Irish parliamentarians on a date cited by one of the witnesses. Another of the men, James Monaghan, was able to provide video evidence of his presence in Dublin and Belfast on other dates cited.

The judge in the original trial, the only judge who had an opportunity to observe the witnesses and assess their credibility under questioning, thought they probably had committed perjury and he ordered an investigation of that. And yet two of three judges, who had no opportunity to assess the whiteness's credibility, overturned the verdict of the trial judge and explained away the inconsistencies in the witnesses' evidence on the ground that they were confused from being removed for so long from civilisation! The third judge disagreed and thought the men should be acquitted again.

The idea that they men would be tried here is far-fetched for it is improbable that the witnesses would travel here, since they were reluctant to travel to Bogotá, Colombia's capital, in the first place and, even if they did it is unlikely that a court here would find "beyond reasonable doubt" that the witnesses were telling the truth given the inconsistencies in their evidence.

And on the suggestion the men be tried here on charges of using false passports, there is no evidence that two of the men used false Irish passports (the evidence is they used false British passports), while the one who used a false Irish passport, Niall Connolly, was already convicted in Colombia on that charge and he served a term of imprisonment on that account. Is it suggested he be charged, convicted and imprisoned again on the same charge?

The contention that Sinn Féin orchestrated the return of the men now to cause further difficulty of the peace process is surprising. Why would Sinn Féin want to do that, when they have placed such store in that process? Anyway, what "orchestration" was involved other than, perhaps, the orchestration to secure their return well before substantive negotiations commence on a restoration of the Good Friday institutions? Were the men to have returned in the midst of such negotiations the fall out would have been far more damaging.

Of course is it not believable these men were in the demilitarised zone of Colombia to examine the peace process there and most of us suspect they were there to assist FARC in some respect or other. But suspicions have no place in our legal system. People are convicted on evidence, not suspicions (or at least that is supposed to be how it works). And while suspicious abound there is no hard evidence that would justify the further imprisonment of three men. The case should rest.

vincent browne