Adjournment Debate.

Colombia Three.

I thank the Ceann Comhairle's office for granting our request to have the Adjournment debate on the case of the three Irish citizens, Niall Connolly, Martin McCauley and Jim Monaghan, in Colombia and the urgent need to get them home safely. This request is to ensure that the three men, the Bring Them Home campaign team, and their lawyers are all looked after and above all to ensure that they return safely to their families. I urge the Taoiseach, the Minister for Foreign Affairs, the Minister of State, Deputy Kitt, and the Department to intervene to give this the final push to get them out of Colombia and safely home. I appreciate that the Department of Foreign Affairs was very supportive of the families and international observers. I witnessed that at first hand and thank them for it but we need a final push to resolve this issue.

I challenge the inflammatory and prejudicial interventions of elements of the media, US and British politicians and sadly of some Members of this House. Their attacks on the men, their families and the international observers were disgraceful. It was a sad day for human rights activists. History will record their shame and lack of integrity on this issue. I wish to bury some of the myths surrounding the case of the "Colombia Three". They were arrested illegally in El Dorado Airport, Bogota, on 11 August 2001. Niall Connolly, Jim Monaghan and Martin McCauley were held without charge for six months in constant fear for their lives. They were charged in January 2002 with the use of false documentation and training the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, FARC.

Their trial began in 2002 and concluded in August 2003. A delegation of international observers, which included lawyers, politicians and human rights activists from Ireland, the US and Australia attended each hearing of the trial in Bogota and a hearing of the commission in the city of Medellin in the north of Colombia. I had the honour and privilege of acting as an observer on that team. We discovered some major inconsistencies in the prosecution's case. There were flaws in the forensic evidence, interference in the case by senior political and military figures in Colombia and fabricated evidence by key prosecution witnesses.

During a visit to the three men, who have been held in six different prisons in varying degrees of danger, observers were informed by senior prison officials that the Colombian authorities could not guarantee their safety in the country. We also heard from the men their reasons for visiting Colombia, the manner of their illegal arrest and the detention and horrific conditions they were forced to endure since their arrest in 2001.

The men explained their reasons for refusing to attend the trial hearings until the concluding stages in July 2003. In their address to the court in July 2003, they stated that their presence in Colombia was in support of the now stalled peace process in that country. They spent a number of weeks in the demilitarised zone in the south-east of Colombia which has also been visited by many international delegations, including senior politicians, diplomats and business people, as well as human rights and political activists from Europe and the US. They stated that their possession of documentation with assumed identities reflected nothing more than a desire to travel unhindered. This is a minor offence punishable by deportation under Colombian law.

Political, military and intelligence forces seeking to undermine the peace process in this country have used this case. Observers found that no evidence was presented at the trial which proved the prosecution case that the men were engaged in illegal training of FARC guerrillas.

The evidence of prosecution witnesses who claimed to have seen the men at various times in Colombia between 1991 and 2001 was refuted under cross-examination. Alibis, including video evidence, was presented which showed the men could not have been in Colombia at the times alleged.

Observers found the men were kept in dangerous conditions and that there is no safe place of detention for them in Colombia. We also noted the threats to their defence lawyers and visiting families. Members of the observer delegation were subjected to harassment and direct intimidation by the Colombian authorities.

These are the facts of the case. I answered all the questions raised by many people. I urge the Taoiseach and the Minister for Foreign Affairs and his Department to use all in their power to get these men safely home and to ensure that the Bring Them Home campaign team can come back safely to Ireland as quickly as possible.

I also wish to raise the urgent matter of the three Irish citizens, Jim Monaghan, Martin McCauley and Niall Connolly, who were cleared of all charges related to terrorism in Colombia. I acknowledge the efforts of the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Cowen, and his departmental officials, on behalf of these three Irish citizens. The Minister's role played a significant part in bringing about a successful outcome to their trial.

As a member of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs, I was particularly disappointed that my repeated requests to send a delegation to the trial were not acceded to by that committee. However, I thank the Chairman of that committee, Deputy Woods, who, by coincidence, is in the chair today, and the majority of committee members, for their support, particularly when the Colombian Vice-President, Mr. Santos, addressed the committee a few weeks ago. He was left in no doubt that committee members and other speakers were extremely concerned, especially at the military and political interference in the course of the trial during which senior army commanders and Government figures publicly declared that the men were guilty. The committee made it clear to him that we expected the men to receive due process and that the verdict should be based on the evidence presented and on nothing else. We also pointed out that these men are EU citizens and that it would not be in Colombia's interests to have a miscarriage of justice involving citizens of the European Union. All this helped ensure that the trial verdict was not interfered with and that every effort was made to provide for the men's safety and security.

The issue of safety is now predominant. I hope the Government and others will do everything to ensure this matter is fully addressed. Relatives and friends of the three men tell us that the Colombian authorities have not so far given adequate security guarantees. A comprehensive security plan has been requested but has not been forthcoming. An offer of two security guards on the men's hotel when they are released is inadequate and unacceptable given the reality of paramilitary activity in Colombia. Clearly what is required is that the men be released and allowed to leave the country immediately. Otherwise their lives will be in constant danger.

The Colombian Attorney General has declared his intention to lodge an appeal against the verdict. Can the men leave Colombia while the appeal process is under way? I understand this is legally possible within the Colombian system. I accept the Department of Foreign Affairs is assisting in these matters. A bond has been arranged to pay €17,000 required for the men's release on a refundable basis. However, these negotiations may well be hampered at this critical time by the absence of any Irish diplomatic representation in Bogota other than the honorary consul.

Given that context, I ask the Minister to clarify the following issues. What is the up-to-date position regarding the men's release on payment of the €17,000? What security arrangements will the Colombian authorities put in place to protect the men on their release while they remain in Bogota? Most importantly, what communications have taken place with the Colombian Government? Has direct contact taken place between the Minister for Foreign Affairs or the Taoiseach, as there has been in the past, and the office of the President or Vice-President since the verdict on Monday to seek the urgent repatriation of the men immediately following their release? This appears to be the only way to ensure their safety?

These men have been found innocent of any crime, other than the minor offence of using false passports, yet their lives are now in constant danger. This situation requires the intervention of the Government, and the Minister for Foreign Affairs or the Taoiseach. The decision to release the men from the country will be taken at Government level in Colombia. It is important that the Government makes contact with the President or Vice-President of Colombia to ensure the immediate repatriation of these men.

As previous speakers said, the concern in this case is the safety of the men and that of the campaign activists who are over in Colombia. We are all worried about their safety. They have talked to representatives of the UN, the Red Cross, the Ombudsman's office and human rights activists, and the common agreement is that nowhere is safe in Colombia for these three Irish men.

Attempts were made to kill these men when they were in jail and there lives were under threat in the past. Due to the high profile nature of their case, their lives are in serious danger. I believe that view would be shared by all parties in this House.

The bottom line is that we want these men to be sent home. Nowhere is safe in Colombia. I have experience of that. I visited the country on a number of occasions. I observed the security around the trial and around our hotel. I went to the shops one day and a man had been killed on the street. The scariest part of that incident was that there was no mention in the newspapers or on television the following day of that man having been killed.

Everyone accepts that because of the high profile nature of this case, these men need to be sent home. That is the key point. I talked to Catríona Ruane a short while ago and that is the reason I was late arriving for this debate. She has had a series of meetings on this matter in recent days but today she had a meeting with senior political, military and judicial authorities. They seem to be attempting to put some comprehensive security package together, but the reality is that one cannot put a security package together because there is nowhere safe in that country. If one was to stay in the UN compound or in the offices of the Red Cross, one would not be safe. Catríona Ruane has been asked by the men's lawyers to put forward a statement to the judge outlining the safety concerns and the things that have happened not only to the men but also to the observers.

We need only cast our minds back to the attempts of the Colombia authorities to intimidate even the observers. A Member of the European Parliament was stopped outside his hotel by a member of the security force personnel. People's passports were torn up by people within the security system.

The bottom line is that the men must come home. Some of their family members are in the Visitors Gallery. They were under the impression that the men were coming home, that they would be safe and that the farce of the trial process was over, but as long as they are in Colombia there is a concern that their lives are in danger. That is a concern that should be shared by the Irish Government and by parties in this House. All pressure must apply to ensure their safety. Irrespective of one's politics in this House, everyone wants to see these three Irish men sent home safely. Can the Minister of State outline what measures the Government can assure those family members in the Visitors Gallery that their men, husbands, brothers, and fathers will come home safely?

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, as was acknowledged by all the Deputies. 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 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, as we know.

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 considerable level of consular assistance from the Department of Foreign Affairs, and I am personally aware of their work. I should perhaps clarify the role of the Department 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. We have sought to ensure that the men have had appropriate access to their legal advisers 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.

We have stressed to the Colombian authorities the importance of ensuring that the men receive a fair trial in accordance with Colombian law. 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.

The judgment 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.

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 it can in this matter.

We understand also that the Colombian Attorney General has indicated his intention to appeal the judgment, to which I think Deputy Crowe referred, and has called for the men to be kept in Colombia pending the appeal. However, it is not yet clear if he will 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 judgment was delivered, our embassy in Mexico, which is also accredited to Colombia, has been in direct and continual 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 well-being 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 their families.

I express my appreciation for the interest that many Members have taken in this case. It has been long and complicated and has attracted considerable public interest and attention. The House may rest assured that, as from the beginning, the Department of Foreign Affairs will provide all possible consular assistance to the men, their families and supporters and will do its utmost to assure the men's safety and well-being.

Drug Treatment Programme.

I thank the Ceann Comhairle's office for the opportunity to raise this important matter. As I speak, the Aisling group's Bradán day programme is closing down. It is the only voluntarily run drugs support and prevention group in the north-east. I understand that it is the only such group of its kind for treating addicts in the country. For the want of a few measly euro, it will be obliged to close its doors at 5 30 p.m. or 6 p.m. All that is required is a grant of approximately €50,000. In recent years the centre has depended on a grant from the local health board which has varied from €45,000 to €50,000 to €55,000. The group could do with €150,000 to enable it to provide a better service but such funding will not be provided. All it needs to keep its doors open is €50,000.

It will be disgraceful if the centre is allowed to close. Everyone in the House is anti-drugs and it is very easy to say so. However, we must back up such statements with action and funding. The Aisling group has taken such action. It receives over 500 hundred telephone calls each year and it treats approximately 70 or 80 addicts in its counselling programmes. It has cured that number of people for each of the past four years at a mere cost of €50,000.

Many of the people cured by the programme have returned to education or gone back to work. They have stated that if it was not for the Aisling group they would be dead. Many would be in prison or in juvenile centres. What would be the costs involved if that was the case? The minimum amount it would cost for each individual would be €50,000 and the maximum would be €250,000. I am only asking for one grant of €50,000 to be paid through the North Eastern Health Board. I hope the Minister of State will not say that this is a matter for the health board to provide the funding. On aper capita basis, the health board has a shortfall of between €50 million to €60 million in its funding. It receives the lowest amount of funding of all health boards throughout the country. There is no point in stating that this is the health board’s problem, it is one with which the Government must deal.

There are drug strategies for various areas throughout the country and it is planned to spend €13 million in Dublin, Cork and Bray. However, the north-east region, which, as recognised by the Minister of State, Deputy Noel Ahern, has the second highest rate of drug abuse in the country, will receive no money. The excuse given is that the regional strategy group has not reported. That group was two years late in establishing its operations and it will be reporting towards the end of the year or early next year with its plans. However, the fact that those plans are not ready does not excuse the failure to grant €50,000 to €100,000 which is proven to do excellent work.

I know many of the young people, some women but mainly men, who have been cured by the Aisling group. It is a joy to talk to and work with these individuals who also help others. They are not addicted to methadone and are completely off drugs. The day programme teaches them how to return to living and coping with their lives. It is one thing to come off drugs, but one must then try to survive for the next number of years.

The Aisling group, through the Bradán programme, is doing an excellent job, on a mainly voluntary basis and at a minimum cost to the State. We have a duty of care to do what we can to ensure that it remains open. It will be a great shame and it will be wrong if it is obliged to close. Many old age pensioners in various counties have been abused by drug misusers and they have been tied up, beaten and robbed. There are many more who live in fear of being robbed by people on drugs as well as others. However, it is recognised that the drug problem is causing fear among ordinary decent citizens. It is not acceptable to say that we cannot donate €50,000 to €100,000 to a project to help solve this problem. I accept that the group cannot cure everybody but it is the only voluntary group which is actively working hard in this area. It would be madness, it would be wrong and it would be a shame if we told it to close its doors. If the centre closes, Members would no longer be able to claim to be anti-drugs. The centre is doing excellent work and we cannot turn our backs on it.

I could speak at length about the money that is being saved etc. There is no point in doing so because it is clear what the centre is doing. We must provide it with assistance. The people who have left the centre have either returned to work or full-time education and are again making headway in their lives. We need more of that and I ask that the Department do what it can to keep the centre open.

I thank the Deputy for raising this matter, the importance of which I appreciate as a result of his contribution. As he is aware, the provision of drug treatment services is the statutory responsibility of the health boards. However, the Minister for Health and Children has been advised by the North Eastern Health Board that the Bradán day programme, which is a day care facility run by the Aisling group, provides a valuable service for drug users in the region and the health board wishes to continue working with this organisation. The Minister is further advised by the North Eastern Health Board that it has been funding Bradán House for a number of years. In 2002 Bradán House received €27,000 from the North Eastern Health Board, while it received €35,000 in 2003.

The North Eastern Health Board has informed the Minister that since the middle of last year negotiations have been ongoing with the Bradán day programme in respect of developing a service level agreement for referral of drug free clients from the North Eastern Health Board addiction service to the Bradán day programme and also the after-care programme. Last October, the Bradán day programme was informed that, due to a number of concerns that the health board addiction service had, the board would fund clients that had been referred from the health board service on a per client basis.

Which is nil.

This is based on the premise that the services offered by the Bradán programme would enhance those of the North Eastern Health Board and not replicate what was already being provided. The board has engaged in discussions with the Bradán day programme to establish a practical and agreeable protocol of referral which will eliminate duplication and provide value for money. The board believes that this protocol of referral may indeed result in a greater number of clients being referred to the Bradán day programme because there will now be clarity with regard to the services that are being provided. This will enhance the services of the health board and meet the needs of the wider community of the north-east.

The overall objective of the Government's strategy regarding drug misuse is to significantly reduce the harm caused to individuals and society by the misuse of drugs through a concerted focus on supply reduction, prevention, treatment and research. In respect of treatment, the objective is to provide a range of options to encourage and enable drug misusers to avail of treatment with the aim of reducing dependency and improving overall health and social well-being. Voluntary organisations such as the Bradán day programme form part of the delivery of the strategy aims and their important contribution is acknowledged by all concerned, including health boards.

I again thank the Deputy for raising this issue. The Minister will be made aware of the points he has made.

The Dáil adjourned at 5.20 p.m. until 2.30 p.m. on Tuesday, 4 May 2004.