Trio may be moved before Andrews visit

 

An attempt has been made to transfer three Irishmen held in custody in Colombia to a remote prison, just days before the visit of former minister for foreign affairs, Mr David Andrews.

The country's public prosecutor has demanded that the men, Mr James Monaghan, Mr Martin McCauley and Mr Niall Connolly, be moved to Valledupar, 16 hours drive from the capital, Bogota.

The three men were arrested in August at Bogota airport on suspicion that they had trained Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas. They were travelling on false passports.

So far the Colombian National Prison and Jails Institute has refused to accept the public prosecutor's transfer demand.

In a statement, a prosecutor's official, Mr Guillermo Mendoza Diago, claimed that "confidential information" indicated that an escape bid might be made.

Mr Andrews travels to Bogota on Saturday for a week-long visit, sponsored by campaigners working on behalf of the men in Ireland.

The United Nations Commissioner for Human Rights, Mrs Mary Robinson, has offered to help organise some meetings for Mr Andrews during his visit.

The men were transferred on Thursday to the high-security La Picota jail from a police holding centre, following court action by their lawyers.

In a note to campaigners in Ireland, one of the lawyers, Mr Jose Luis Velasco, yesterday said he believed the Colombian prosecutor is "seeking to isolate the men" by moving them again to Valledupar.

"This is very worrying. It makes it very difficult for their right to a defence, particularly interviews with their lawyers," he wrote in an e-mail yesterday to one supporter, Ms Caitríona Ruane.

Ms Ruane said last night: "It is very worrying that this should happen just four days before Mr Andrews travels to Colombia. They will effectively have no rights to a defence if it does."

United Nations investigators reported in November that prisoners had been beaten with metal batons wrapped in rubber in Valledupar, the most modern prison in the country.

Some prisoners have been forced to sleep in cardboard huts in prison yards, while wealthier prisoners were able to buy their way into better conditions.

The Irish embassy in Mexico yesterday attempted to get further information about the transfer reports from the Colombian authorities but it had no confirmation by last evening.

A transfer to Valledupar would significantly impede Mr Andrews's visit, since he had hoped to meet the men on several occasions and meet with Colombian political figures.

He said he had intended asking them to explain how they were arrested travelling on false passports.

However, Valledupar, which is in north-eastern Colombia, has no direct air link with Bogota.

Meanwhile, US Congressman, Mr Henry Hyde, has confirmed that a Congressional investigations into the three men's activities could begin early in the spring.

The Irish National Caucus lobby group has urged its supporters on Capitol Hill to scrap the inquiry, arguing that it is "artificial" and "contrived".