BOGOTA, Colombia – Three suspected IRA (search) members arrested after visiting a rebel safe haven were acquitted Monday of charges they trained the Colombian insurgents but convicted of traveling on false passports and identity documents.
A judge sentenced the three to prison terms of up to three years, eight months and will be expelled from Colombia (search) after they serve their time, said court official Emilia Montanez, reading from a statement. They also were fined $6,500 apiece.
Defendants James Monaghan, Niall Connolly and Martin McCauley were not present as the verdict was read. Testimony hearings ended last year, but the verdict was not issued until Monday because of what Judge Jaime Acosta said was a heavy caseload.
They were arrested in August 2001 after leaving a rebel safe haven, which had been granted by the government during peace talks that later collapsed in February 2002.
Their supporters gasped with relief as the verdict was read at the Palace of Justice in this Andean capital.
"I'm very pleased that the Colombian justice system has maintained its independence from political and military interference," said Mary White, a senator in the Irish parliament, referring to remarks from the Colombian president's office and the military high command that described the men as terrorists.
President Alvaro Uribe's spokesman said the verdict underscored the separation of powers in Colombia. "The government respects the verdicts," spokesman Ricardo Galan told The Associated Press. "These are separate branches."
White, who came to this Andean capital from Dublin to hear the verdict, told the AP the verdict would boost the peace process in Northern Ireland because Protestant opponents had tried to seize on the Colombia case as evidence the Irish Republican Army was continuing to carry out illegal activities despite a 1997 cease-fire.
Monaghan was sentenced to three years and eight months, McCauley to three years and eight days, and Connolly to two years and two months.
Legal experts said they would be credited with time served during the trial. Connolly has already completed his entire sentence while awaiting trial. All have been in prison since being arrested at Bogota's airport.
Once the fines are paid, Acosta will decide whether to set the men free. They would have faced up to 14 years in prison if found guilty of the terrorism charges.
Prosecutors claimed the three provided the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, with training to carry out increasingly sophisticated attacks.
Defense lawyers insisted the men only wanted to observe Colombia's peace process.
Witnesses testified the men had been in the rebel safe haven.
White, who visited them Sunday, said their conditions had improved and their spirits "remain strong but they really want is to get back to their families."
Monaghan, of Ireland, is an IRA veteran who was convicted in 1971 for possessing explosives and conspiring to cause explosions. Connolly, also of Ireland, served in Cuba as the Latin American representative for Sinn Fein, the IRA's political wing. McCauley, of Northern Ireland, was wounded in a police ambush at an IRA arms dump in 1982 and was later convicted of weapons possession.
The FARC and a smaller rebel group have been battling for four decades against a succession of elected governments in Colombia. Some 3,500 people die in the conflict each year.