MANILA A Manila court sentenced 14 members of a Muslim militant group to life in prison on Thursday for the kidnapping of 20 people from a luxury beach resort in 2001 and the decapitation of three of them, including an American.
Guillermo Sobero was beheaded a few weeks after he was snatched at gunpoint from the Dos Palmas resort in Palawan in the western Philippines by members of the Abu Sayyaf group.
Another American, missionary Martin Burnham, and a Filipino nurse were killed in an army rescue operation after the hostages had spent a year in captivity in the jungles of the southern Philippines.
Burnham's wife Gracia was shot in the leg but survived and wrote two books about the ordeal.
The judge at the trial court handed down 20 life sentences to each of the guilty men and ordered them to pay damages of between 50,000-300,000 pesos ($1,194-$7,162) to each of the victims.
"There's no justice in this country," Toting Hannoh, one of those convicted, told Reuters as he was being led by security officers to a police van outside the court after the sentencing.
"The Abu Sayyaf will grow stronger. We will be back."
Four other people, including one woman, were acquitted of the charges, a court official said.
The Abu Sayyaf is the smallest but deadliest Muslim rebel group in the south of the mainly Catholic country, with a reputation for savagery.
Members of the gang raided Dos Palmas, an upscale seaside resort in the western Philippines, and took away the hostages by speedboat to the southern islands of Basilan and Jolo.
The Burnhams were there to celebrate their 18th wedding anniversary, while Sobero, the other American, was on a holiday with his Filipina girlfriend.
The Abu Sayyaf moved the hostages about in remote jungles while negotiating for ransom for over a year. At night they were handcuffed and chained to trees, and were hustled through waist-deep swamps and thick undergrowth to evade capture.
WARNING TO TERRORISTS
On Thursday, heavily-armed police officers brought the 17 handcuffed men and a woman to a courtroom at a police camp south of the capital for the sentencing, ending a four-year trial that began on the western island of Palawan.
State prosecutors said the verdict was fair. Of the acquitted, only Satra Tilao, a sister of a slain Abu Sayyaf spokesman, was freed because the other three had other pending criminal cases not related to the Dos Palmas kidnapping.
"Oh, I am so happy," Tilao, 42 said, throwing her arms around a woman police officer after the court acquitted her of conspiring with the rebels to collect ransom from the hostages.
Tilao, who suffers from polio, is the younger sister of Aldam Tilao, alias Abu Sabaya, the flamboyant spokesman of the Abu Sayyaf, who was killed a week after the last hostages were rescued by soldiers in 2002.
"My prayers were answered, thank you Allah," her 67-year-old mother, Isnaira Kuranding, said, tears welling in her eyes as she shook the hands of her daughter's lawyer.
Robert Courtney, U.S. Department of Justice attache at the U.S. embassy in Manila, praised the government lawyers.
"It sends a strong message about the capability of the Philippine law enforcement to deal with terrorist activities through the criminal justice system," he told reporters.
A total of 85 people were originally charged for kidnapping and serious illegal detention with ransom, but most were on the loose and only 23 were taken to court.
In 2005, four of the accused were killed in a prison riot at a police camp and one was freed because of lack of proof.
In one of her books about her ordeal, "In the Presence of My Enemies", Burnham alleged links between Philippine officials and her captors, saying an unidentified Filipino general had tried to keep part of the money raised for ransom, and soldiers had delivered supplies to the guerrillas.
The allegations were not investigated in court. Nearly 40 million pesos ($954,000) were paid to the Abu Sayyaf in ransom, including 15 million pesos raised by the Burnhams' church, court records showed.
($1 = 41.89)
(Reporting by Manny Mogato, editing by Sanjeev Miglani)