Last Friday, on the resumption of the trail of the three men, Edwin Giovanny Rodriguez, a former member of the FARC left-wing rebel group, testified that he was the personal driver for one the imprisoned Irishmen and saw all three instruct FARC members on the use of explosives.
Rodriguez’s description of the man he drove for in February 2001 matches James Monaghan, currently held with Niall Connolly and Martin McCauley in Lo Modelo prison in Bogota.
“I was told to go pick this one man up because they were going to provide us with training,” the 25-year-old told the packed courtroom. The training was in explosives and mortars, he continued. His description of the two others traveling would seem to match McCauley and Connolly. He could not state that he knew any of the men’s names.
Rodriguez characterized himself as uneducated and illiterate and having only lived in “violent areas.” He said the sole employment he ever had was “scraping coca leaves” as a source of money. He said he joined FARC in 1999, but that he deserted and told Colombian authorities before being himself imprisoned about the presence of foreigners who had trained the men in explosives.
Initially, the Colombian authorities did not believe his story, he testified.
How did he know that the men on trial were the ones he saw in the rebel territory? he was asked. He said he saw stories about the men on TV news.
“When they were captured, Jorge Briceno addressed us and said, ‘They have already given us what we wanted and now they’re on their own,’ ” Rodriguez said. Briceno is a FARC commander. Rodriguez said he became Briceno’s personal driver.
He said he drove Monaghan every day to a classroom where the man gave instructions on explosives and mortar technique to FARC rebels. However, he also said he was always on the outside of the door of the classroom as a guard because FARC would not train him because he is illiterate.
Though vague when queried on certain dates and names, he said he was sure that he had driven the “gringos” around the then rebel-held territory from Feb. 5-25, 2001. Gringos, he said, was the name for anyone not from Colombia or South America.
Wearing a gray sweater over a bulletproof vest, Rodriguez leaned back in his chair in the witness box while he answered questions from the judge and prosecutor. He said his life was in danger for speaking out.
“I am now a military objective,” he told the court. He said he had not heard from his wife and 6-year-old son since last week and he feared they may have been killed by the FARC because of his testimony. He had petitioned presiding Judge Jairo the previous Wednesday to have himself and his family placed in a witness-protection program, but said it may be too late for his family.
When the defense started its questioning, Rodriguez’s eyes widened. He shifted out of his relaxed stance and pushed his body over the desk in front of him.
The defense asked for specific times and dates of his work in the FARC. He said he had little knowledge of time because of his illiteracy. Then he was asked how he could be so sure about the dates he drove the foreigners around.
“You don’t forget seeing foreigners or the date your son is born,” he replied. “I am illiterate, not mentally retarded.”
Rodriguez said that toward the end of February 2001, he took Monaghan, while the other two men were driven in separate cars, to an area where FARC rebels could “practice what had been taught.”
He said he was subsequently dispatched to another unit after he “misbehaved.”
“I got drunk and crashed the car,” he said. He testified he never saw the men again.
Niall Connolly was the Sinn Fein representative in Cuba; James Monaghan was convicted in 1971 of possession of explosives; Martin McCauley was wounded in a gardai raid on an IRA weapons dump and also was convicted of weapons possession.
All three maintain they were visiting Colombia to observe the then struggling peace process there and see some of the country’s natural beauty.
During Rodriguez’s cross-examination, the defense asked the witness whether he knew what the word “vacation” meant. He replied he was unfamiliar with the term.
Fianna Fail Sen. Mary White, part of a delegation here to observe the trial, said on Thursday that the trial should have been halted and that Irish Foreign Minister Brian Cowen should directly intercede in the case for lack of evidence. She said this before the Rodriguez testimony was presented on Friday.
Cowen responded through the Foreign Affairs Office in Dublin that because Colombia is a sovereign nation, it would be inappropriate to intervene in an ongoing legal procedure.
“I’m annoyed and frustrated,” White told reporters following her meeting with the judge in the case. At that meeting she petitioned him to move the men from the prison they were being held in (a three-hour drive from Bogota) to one within the city limits.
The judge subsequently ordered the prisoners to be sent to nearby Lo Modelo prison and they were transported within hours of the directive.
“It’s time that Brian Cowen sits down with the [Colombian] foreign minister and speak face to face,” she said.
She said the witnesses in the on-again, off-again trial have offered no compelling testimony that warrants keeping Connolly, McCauley and Monaghan in prison, where they have been since their arrest coming out of rebel-held territory in August 2001.
“It’s been farcical,” she said. “This has to get personal.”
Several delays have been caused by both the prosecution and the defense in this trial. On the first day of the public phase of the trial last October, the three suspects refused to come to a courtroom already packed with journalists and observers from the UK, Ireland, the United States and elsewhere. It was determined that the three could exclude themselves from the courtroom legally under Colombian law. There was a delay as the judge made that determination.
Then in December, Rodriguez failed to testify because he refused to travel by road from the town of Villavicencio, claiming such a trip would be “too dangerous.” He was flown here for this week’s appearance.
This week he told the judge on Wednesday that he would not give evidence till he had assurance for his and his family’s safety — fearing reprisals for his testimony. It was then he asked that his family be placed in a witness-protection program, and the judge said Rodriguez’s testimony could be delayed until last Friday as court officials tried to meet that request.
The young, slight man in a white T-shirt wore a navy blue bulletproof vest as he sat in the witness chair for the first time in Courtroom No. 6 on Wednesday. His eyes darted from the prosecutor to the defense and the crowded gallery filled with journalists and a delegation from Ireland.
“He looked terrified,” noted Ireland’s ambassador to Mexico, Art Agnew, who is monitoring the trial.
A dozen prison guards added to the cramped scene, bearing automatic rifles as Rodriguez spoke.
“The last time we were here [December 2002], this man said he wouldn’t testify because the authorities were going to take him by road,” said Caitriona Ruane, spokeswoman for the Bring Them Home Campaign. “Now, he says he wants protection for his family; we just feel he’s making excuses to cause delays.
“They can dress it up in their little Colombian laws, but we think the trial should be halted because of the lack of any credible evidence against the men.”
Also last Wednesday, prosecutors put the army captain who arrested the men at El Dorado Airport in Bogota on the stand. He testified that the group claimed to be journalists and that Martin McCauley succumbed to the strain and admitted he was carrying a false passport.
Captain Huberto Pulido, in a pea green officer’s uniform, described to the packed courtroom how the arrest of the three in August of 2001 came about.
He said the Colombian officials had received “anonymous” tips that foreigners — maybe Irish nationals — were training the FARC rebels in the designated Switzerland-sized zone the government had allowed the FARC to control before it was taken back in 2002.
“Starting in May of 2001 we had reports there were foreigners training the FARC,” in terrorist techniques Captain Pudilo testified. He and a group of other Colombian law enforcement were at the Bogota airport when the three Irishmen got off their flight coming out of the Zone.
When asked what they were doing in the FARC Zone, the captain replied the men said they were “journalists interested in the peace process.”
The captain said one of the trio seemed particularly nervous during questioning. After examining his passport, the captain said he asked for his name. The man said his name was Martin McCauley. That wasn’t the name on the passport.
“He was shocked when I asked him and then I said that wasn’t what was on the passport,” Captain Pulido told the court. Martin McCauley then basically admitted that it was a false passport the captain added.
The defense asked why if McCauley was the only one to state he was traveling on a false document were all three arrested? The captain said they were all in the same group.
The government’s next witness was identified as a terrorist expert. He claimed the FARC rebels have benefited from IRA weapons training, but could not give any concrete evidence that linked the three men as the providers of such expertise.
Last week, the Colombian government leaked a report to a British journalist that supposedly shows direct correlation between the FARC’s latest bombing techniques and the IRA’s. The brief’s preparation was reportedly prepared with the aid of British intelligence.
The validity of the Colombian brief would have to be questioned, along with anything prepared with British intelligence’s assistance, after the revelation that a British report on Iraq was plagiarized off the Internet from a student thesis whose work was based on 12-year-old information.
An antiterrorism advisor to Colombian attorney general, German Camacho, spoke outside the courthouse.
“The witnesses will bring forward various proofs, and we are still collecting more proofs that will all reinforce our argument that they were here training the FARC,” Camacho said.
Later, after a meeting with Colombia’s vice president, Francisco Santos, on Fianna Fail’s White sounded more conciliatory, saying she had renewed faith that the trial would be monitored closely by the Colombian government.
White was out to dinner near the explosion at the El Nougal Club on Friday night. The Irishmen’s lawyers, spokeswoman Ruane, and observers from Ireland were nearby at an Argentine steakhouse that features tango dancing when the explosion ripped through El Nougal, which was hosting a children’s party, among other activities.
White said she could see the smoke and heard the emergency crews responding from all over to the violent explosion.
On Saturday, as the Ruane and the Dail delegation were scheduled to visit the men in Lo Modelo, Colombians took the streets by the thousands to protest the bombing of the private club in the richest quadrant of Bogota. President Alvaro Uribe is asking for even more U.S. military assistance to thwart the four-decade terrorist campaign in his country.
The trial resumes March 24 when the defense will call its witnesses. Several defense witnesses are thought to be ready to testify that they were with Niall Connolly in Cuba at the same time the prosecution’s witnesses claim Connolly was in the FARC zone.