Colombian prisoner holds Bush prosecutors at bay

An extraordinary trial, remarkable among other things for a novel legal doctrine unveiled by the Bush administration during the course of it, ended as a mistrial Nov. 21 in Washington. The jury could not reach a verdict in the case of Colombian political prisoner Ricardo Palmera, also known as Simon Trinidad.

Unofficially, the Marxist-oriented Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, to which Trinidad belongs, was in the dock too. For 42 years, the FARC has sought to undermine one right-wing, U.S.-supported government after another. Its 20,000 combatants control 40 percent of Colombia’s territory. In effect, Colombia has been in a state of civil war for four decades.

In late 2003, Trinidad was in Ecuador preparing for discussions with UN official James LeMoyne aimed at exchanging 60 prisoners held by the FARC for 600 guerrillas held by the Colombian government. With CIA help, Ecuadorian and Colombian police arrested him in Quito, Ecuador’s capital, on Jan. 2, 2004.

Imprisoned first in Colombia, Trinidad was extradited to the United States on Dec. 31, 2004. During the time he has been confined to a U.S. prison cell, he has been denied visitors, access to a lawyer of his choice and access to important documents needed for his defense.

He is also being tried in absentia in Colombia.

Central to the U.S. prosecutor’s case in Trinidad’s trial, which began Oct. 16, was the FARC’s capture on Feb. 13, 2003, of three U.S. “contract soldiers,” or mercenaries, who survived the downing of their reconnaissance airplane in Colombian territory.

The principal charge leveled against Trinidad was “conspiracy to take hostages,” although he was charged also with supporting “terrorism.” President Clinton designated the FARC as a terrorist organization in 1997.

Trinidad was never alleged to have had prior knowledge of, participated in or directed the capture of the mercenaries.

Yet, prosecutors described the FARC as a “criminal hostage-taking conspiracy,” initially summoning (and then retracting the summons to) 20,000 FARC members as co-conspirators with Trinidad.

The government’s case broke new ground in that proclaimed Trinidad’s guilt by association. Notions of criminal conspiracy were expanded to hold all members of a “terrorist group” responsible for the alleged crimes of a few.

In effect, Washington was experimenting with a tool for de-legitimizing any and all political movements not to its liking, thereby undermining international and domestic legal protections.

However, the U.S. government’s lawyers did not prevail. The jury was deadlocked and the judge declared a mistrial.

Much of the credit goes to Trinidad himself, according to lawyer and daily courtroom observer Paul Wolf. Disqualified from summoning witnesses but testifying on his own behalf, Trinidad told jurors why he joined the FARC. Having shown signs of lack of interest in prosecution arguments and Colombian politics, they began to listen as Trinidad told them of the “very special conditions” in his home country.

He described the demise of the liberal politics he and his friends pursued in the early 1980s. He told about his own torture in 1982, and about comrades who were murdered whose only offense was to have won an election. He said they and he wanted “to fight for social, political and economic changes in my country and to reach peace.”

Shedding tears as he recounted the 1987 killing of presidential candidate Jaime Pardo Leal, Trinidad aroused an up-till-then unengaged jury.

The Bogota weekly La Voz designated him as “Simon Dignidad” because he challenged “gringo justice — arrogant and classist — [and he] defended the right of rebellion.” Not least, he advocated for the FARC, the shadow defendant in the case.

U.S. District Judge Thomas Hogan announced hearings on Dec. 14 for fixing a new trial date. Meanwhile Simon Trinidad and 50 co-defendants in Colombia go to trial in May 2007 on charges of “drug trafficking.”

The story of Simon Trinidad sheds light on the U.S. attitude toward peace in Colombia. Significantly, Trinidad’s punishment resulted from preparations for peace talks between the FARC and the Colombian government.

Simon Trinidad told the jury, “The only way to find peace in Colombia is through humanitarian accords.” For top dogs in Washington and dependent military chieftains in Colombia, sentiments like that are clearly subversive.

atwhit @ megalink.net