Colombia grants amnesty to alleged IRA bomb-making trio

By Joe Parkin Daniels in Bogotá and Henry McDonald in Belfast

Three alleged IRA members accused of training Colombian rebels in bomb-making techniques have been granted amnesty nearly two decades after they were arrested, as part of the South American nation’s ongoing peace process.

Niall Connolly, James Monaghan and Martin McCauley, who became known as the Colombia Three, were arrested at Bogotá’s El Dorado airport in 2001. They were charged with travelling on false documents and teaching members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (or Farc) how to build improvised mortar bombs.

After a highly-publicised trial and appeal the Irishmen were sentenced to 17 years in prison in 2004 – only for it to emerge that they had already fled Colombia while on bail. The sentence was ratified three years later in the country’s supreme court.

On Tuesday, in what would be the final year of their sentence, Connolly, Monaghan and McCauley were granted amnesty by a special peace tribunal in Colombia, set up following a successful peace deal between the government and Farc in 2016.

The move proved divisive, with politicians from the ruling Democratic Centre party attacking the tribunal for being too soft on criminals. “As always, the court of impunity for narcoterrorism is doing its thing,” tweeted senator Carlos Felipe Mejía, whose hardline party has opposed the peace deal it inherited after elections two years ago.

Sergio Guzmán, director of Colombia Risk Analysis, said that while the deal may undercut some faith in the peace process, it was an important symbolic gesture. “Many people are unconvinced that the tribunal will effectively deliver justice and for that matter punishment for to those responsible for atrocities during Colombia’s conflict,” said Guzmán. “But the tribunal’s ruling does a lot for symbolism and restorative justice.”

The three Irishmen were detained after returning from the Caguán region, a vast swathe of jungle and prairie granted to the Marxist rebel group during an earlier round of talks. Much speculation focused on Monaghan, whose nickname “Mortar” reflected his role as an allaged IRA engineering officer who helped the group develop improvised artillery weapons.

Their arrest initially threatened to derail peace processes on both sides of the Atlantic: the presence of Irish republicans in an active war-zone did little to convince observers that the IRA would honour the Good Friday agreement, then in its infancy. Meanwhile, the Farc were accused of negotiating in bad faith, using the demilitarized zone to regroup and retrain.

Sinn Féin, the political wing of the IRA, was deeply embarrassed by the fiasco, which came just weeks before the 9/11 terror attacks and the launch of George W Bush’s war on terror a few weeks later.

But the episode convinced the Bush administration to stiffen its approach to Sinn Féin and increased pressure on Irish republicans to steer away from the armed struggle towards political compromise.

Negotiations with Farc fell apart in 2002, triggering a violent final chapter in Colombia’s civil war. As fighting continued, the three Irishmen were released on bail in 2004 under the condition that they stayed in Colombia – but they soon fled to Ireland.

“The story of that journey cannot be told for many years because that might endanger many good people,” Monaghan said in a 2015 interview with the republican newspaper An Phoblacht. “There are intelligence services who would dearly love to know how it was done.”

Ireland has no extradition treaty with Colombia, but when McCauley appealed against a firearms charge at a Belfast court in 2014, he sent a proxy, fearing extradition by the British government.

In 2016, a new peace process succeeded in ending Colombia’s five-decade war that killed over 260,000 people and left 7 million displaced. One of the provisions of that deal is a transitional justice tribunal which grants clemency for crimes committed under the banner of the conflict, in exchange for truth-telling testimony.

The tribunal’s judges stated in their ruling on Tuesday that the trio would be granted parole in absentia, which “will be effective as long as they are not required by another judicial authority”.