[Ppnews] Colombian guerrilla on trial in Washington D.C

Political Prisoner News ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Mon Nov 6 08:52:52 EST 2006


Simon Trinidad Prosecution as Terror War Test Case

by Paul Wolf, WW4 REPORT

Ricardo Palmera, a Colombian guerrilla better known as Simon 
Trinidad, is on trial in Washington D.C. for hostage-taking and 
related charges of conspiracy, aiding and abetting, and providing 
material support to a terrorist organization. Trinidad is well-known 
in Colombia for his role as a negotiator for the Revolutionary Armed 
Forces of Colombia (FARC), a Marxist guerrilla army that has battled 
the Colombian government for more than 40 years.

The charges stem from an incident on Feb. 13, 2003, in which a Cessna 
208 surveillance aircraft crashed in a FARC-controlled region of the 
Colombian jungle. After the crash, and the execution of two occupants 
of the plane, the FARC took three other occupants captive, and have 
held them ever since, along with about 60 Colombian police, military, 
and political figures they are holding somewhere in the dense 
Colombian jungle. The three Americans were employed by California 
Microwave Systems, a US military contractor. The FARC consider them 
to be prisoners of war.

In January 2004, Simon Trinidad was apparently sent by the FARC 
leadership to Quito, Ecuador, to meet with James LeMoyne, UN 
Secretary-General Kofi Annan's special representative for 
Colombia-FARC negotiations. The meeting was not to be. Trinidad was 
tracked by Colombian and US authorities and arrested by Ecuadoran 
authorities shortly after arrival. There he stated that he was a 
member of the FARC on a humanitarian mission to discuss the exchange 
of prisoners, and asked for the protection of the Ecuadoran 
government. He was shortly sent to Colombia, interrogated by the FBI, 
and then extradited to the US to face criminal hostage-taking charges 
stemming from the Cessna incident.

It's conceded that Simon Trinidad has been a member of the FARC since 
1987, working in the Caribbean Bloc in the northwest of the country. 
It is not alleged, however, that Trinidad had any involvement in the 
Cessna incident itself. He did not give the order to shoot down this 
plane, and was not involved in the decision to take the Americans as 
prisoners. It appears that Trinidad's only involvement was to travel 
to Ecuador to attempt to lay the groundwork for talks on their release.

Although the Colombian government has successfully entered into 
negotiations with another guerrilla organization, the National 
Liberation Army (ELN), and with the right-wing Colombian Self-Defense 
Forces (AUC), no progress has been made during the administration of 
President Alvaro Uribe with respect to the FARC. The Colombian 
government has in principle agreed to negotiations under the auspices 
of three friendly countries, Switzerland, France and Sweden, but its 
position has been that a prisoner exchange would only be part of 
broader talks on demobilizing the FARC. Public pressure, however, 
forced the Colombian government to raise the issue of a separate 
humanitarian exchange with the FARC. The FARC responded by stating 
its terms for the exchange, which include the creation of a small 
demilitarized zone, which would be limited in duration to what would 
be required to exchange the prisoners.

The issue of a prisoner exchange has loomed in the background of 
peace negotiations since at least 1998, when Andres Pastrana was 
elected president of Colombia with promises of ending the war with 
the guerrillas. Although Pastrana's experiment, granting the FARC a 
large demilitarized zone to rule as their own, ultimately ended in 
failure, the prisoner exchange issue has survived. In 2003, the FARC 
released hundreds of captives in exchange for a dozen FARC members 
held in Colombian prisons. Although US and Colombian officials are 
quick to term the prisoners as "criminals" and "hostages," 
respectively, the reality is that both sides consider them 
canjeable--a Spanish word meaning exchangeable.

With the capture of the three Americans, and their inclusion on the 
list of canjeables, all this would come to an end. Trinidad's mission 
to Ecuador would be met with his arrest, and extradition to the US 
for hostage-taking. Colombian President Alvaro Uribe gave the FARC an 
ultimatum: release all the prisoners, including the three Americans, 
or face extradition to the dreaded North America, where the harsh 
treatment of terrorist suspects has become legendary. The ultimatum 
went unanswered, and Trinidad was flown to Washington DC aboard John 
Ashcroft's private jet, with an entourage of FBI agents and 
heavily-armed guards.

The possibility of a canje, with Trinidad himself part of the 
exchange, came to an abrupt end last week, one week after Trinidad's 
trial began, when a car bomb injured 20 people inside the military 
academy in Bogota. President Uribe not only called off negotiations 
with the FARC, but also announced that the Colombian military would 
undertake a mission to rescue the 60 prisoners held by the FARC. The 
announcement drew little support in Colombia, particularly among the 
prisoners' family members. Nicholas Burns of the US State Department 
quickly arrived, announcing US support for a rescue attempt. Whatever 
the fate of the prisoners may be, negotiations with the FARC have hit 
an impasse.

Breaking New Legal Ground

The prosecutors of Simon Trinidad are breaking new legal ground, in 
the form of a broad expansion of US criminal conspiracy laws to hold 
members of a designated "terrorist" organization responsible for 
crimes committed by other members of the group. The FARC is being 
described not as an insurgent army, or even as an army of unlawful 
combatants, as is the case with the Guantanamo detainees. In 
Trinidad's case, the prosecutor characterizes the FARC as a criminal 
"hostage taking conspiracy" of some 20,000 co-conspirators. Members 
of the designated "foreign terrorist organization" become 
co-conspirators through their status as members of the organization. 
The case represents an experiment by the Department of Justice to try 
a foreign insurgent using ordinary criminal conspiracy laws.

Simon Trinidad originally had a "co-defendant" in the case--the 
entire FARC organization. Thomas Hogan, the Chief Judge of the D.C. 
District Court, went so far as to summon the organization to appear 
in his courtroom, publishing notices in Colombian newspapers and 
shortcutting the extradition process. For whatever reason, this 
unique approach to terrorism was abandoned. The co-defendant army was 
dropped from the case, and the top 50 leaders of the FARC indicted 
separately in a drug case hailed as the largest prosecution in US 
history. Simon Trinidad is not a defendant in that case, nor does he 
show up in Colombian intelligence documents used to prepare "The FARC 
Indictment," or in seized FARC documents which describe the 
organization's leadership. These intelligence reports and captured 
documents, if admitted into evidence in Trinidad's trial, put the 
government in the position of convicting a rank-and-file member of an 
insurgent army as a co-conspirator for crimes he could not have 
ordered, or even influenced.

The trial began Oct. 17 in Washington DC, and is expected to last 
several weeks. What is odd about this trial is that very few facts 
are in dispute. There is no argument that Simon Trinidad is a member 
of the FARC. There is no doubt that the three Americans were taken 
captive by the FARC, who are still holding them. There is no doubt 
that Trinidad knew that the FARC takes and holds prisoners. These are 
the elements of the charge of conspiracy to commit hostage-taking. 
This evidence is undisputed, but presented in the form of a slick 
multimedia presentation, using video clips, computer images of 
documents, and recordings of radio transmissions. It is supported by 
some 20 witnesses flown in from Colombia. The jury will not only be 
convinced, but impressed and perhaps even entertained. It is only the 
rarest of trials that is interesting to watch.

What the jury will not get to decide is whether US laws against 
hostage-taking should apply to this situation at all. Or whether it 
is appropriate to use judicial proceedings as a bargaining chip in 
peace negotiations. The jury will have no idea that their verdict in 
the trial could have far-reaching implications that go well beyond 
the fate of the individual defendant. They will not know the context, 
or the reason this prosecution is occurring. They will not know that 
there are some 80 cases pending against Trinidad in Colombia, in 
which he is being tried in absentia for other FARC activities, or 
that he is not permitted a private attorney of his choice. After 
hearing the evidence, they will be given a simple set of rules to 
follow, called "jury instructions." The mechanical application of 
these instructions can only result in finding the defendant, and the 
entire 20,000-member FARC organization, guilty of hostage-taking.

Yet the prosecution's efforts have resulted in some leakage of 
information, perhaps enough to confuse some jurors. The prosecution's 
proof of the FARC's "demands" for the release of the Americans--in 
actuality the FARC's response to the government's initiative--has 
opened the door to some mention of the prisoner exchange issue 
lurking behind this trial. There is no room in the jury instructions 
to consider these factors, and the defense's efforts to ask witnesses 
questions about the subject have been cut off by the judge at every 
instance. Yet, it only takes one person to hang the jury, and these 
jurors are being asked to vote on a very abstract idea: whether the 
negotiator for a "foreign terrorist organization" can be held 
criminally responsible for the actions of his organization. It would 
only take one juror to say no, and the outcome is far from certain.

Paul Wolf is an attorney in Washington, and may be contacted via his 
websites: http://www.paulwolf.org, http://www.international-lawyers.org.

See also:

"The Politics of the FARC Indictment: A 'Secret Formula' Against 
Colombia's Guerillas?" by Paul Wolf, WW4 REPORT #122, June 2006, 
"FARC leader captured in Ecuador," WW4 REPORT #95, February 2004, 

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