WASHINGTON - A Colombian rebel leader was sentenced to 60 years in prison Monday and labeled a terrorist for helping hold three U.S. contractors hostage as part of a decades-long struggle with the Colombian government.
Though he denounced terrorism and said he hoped the hostages would be released, Ricardo Palmera restated his allegiance to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, and justified its actions as part of a legitimate military revolution.
"My conscience absolves me and I join the ranks of so many others who history can and will absolve," Palmera said, concluding an hour-long speech that railed against a Colombian government he called oppressive and corrupt.
Palmera, who is better known by his nom de guerre, Simon Trinidad, was convicted in July of hostage-taking conspiracy. He admitted serving as the FARC's chief negotiator and spokesman during discussions over the release of the hostages but he said he never saw the three Americans or kept them hostage himself.
Prosecutors bristled at such a distinction.
"Guerrillas who can point an AK-47 at a hostage are a dime a dozen, but finding someone with the negotiation skills to go toe-to-toe with the Colombian government and the entire international community is not easy," prosecutor Ken Kohl said. "You need a proven, bare-knuckle political icon like Simon Trinidad, who won't allow a sense of shame or humanity get in the way."
At one point, Kohl compared Palmera to Osama bin Laden. Palmera, in his speech, chose Nelson Mandela and Simon Bolivar.
The three hostages — Marc Gonsalves, Thomas Howes and Keith Stansell — were civilian Pentagon contractors flying a surveillance mission over the Colombian jungle when their plane crashed in 2003 in a rebel stronghold. They were taken hostage and were most recently seen in videos believed to have been recorded in late October.
U.S. District Judge Royce C. Lamberth listened intently to Palmera's speech but wasted little time in handing down the sentence, the maximum allowed under the U.S. extradition treaty with Colombia.
"This was and is an act of terrorism," Lamberth told Palmera. "The crime is heinous and barbaric and against the law of all civilized nations."
Palmera, stood stoically as Lamberth spoke, then turned and smiled, pumping his fist to a handful of supporters in the courtroom. Palmera is 57 and, unless he prevails on appeal, is likely to die in prison. There is no parole in the federal system.
Defense attorney Robert Tucker chastised the U.S. government for treating Palmera as if he had hijacked an airplane or violently ransomed hostages for money. The FARC is in a legitimate revolutionary army and though its ideas may be questioned, Tucker said, it is unfair for the U.S. to prosecute the one person who sought peaceful negotiations to release the three men.
Tucker compared the conflict to the U.S. Revolutionary War, a comparison Kohl objected to. The Americans revolted against the British, he said, but didn't kill civilians or take them hostage to barter with.
It is unclear what effect the sentence will have on the three hostages. The U.S. had hoped Palmera's conviction and the threat of a lengthy sentence would prod the FARC to release the men.
"After this, the FARC will have absolutely no interest in freeing the three Americans," said Carlos Lozano, who edits the Communist newspaper Voz and who has served as a mediator between the FARC and the Colombian government. "This shuts down the possibility of a goodwill gesture by the guerrillas to free one of the Americans."
Palmera is also awaiting a second trial on cocaine trafficking charges. The first case ended with a jury deadlocked at 7-5 in favor of acquittal. Jurors did not dispute that the FARC was in the cocaine business but most felt the government could not prove Palmera was part of that enterprise.
Associated Press writer Toby Muse contributed to this report from Bogota, Colombia.