WASHINGTON A former Colombian rebel leader was sentenced to 60 years in prison on Monday for conspiring to take hostages in connection with the kidnapping of three American contractors in 2003 in Colombia.
U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth handed down the sentence in the case of Ricardo Palmera, 56, the most senior leader of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia to go on trial in the United States.
Lamberth characterized the hostage-taking crime as "an act of terrorism" that was heinous, barbaric and "against the law of all civilized nations."
The U.S. government has designated the group, known by its Spanish acronym FARC, as a foreign terrorist organization. FARC rebels have been fighting for socialist revolution since 1964.
Palmera, also known as Simon Trinidad, was captured in Ecuador and then extradited to the United States from Colombia in December 2004. A former banker born into Colombian high society, Palmera was radicalized by a murder campaign against leftists in the 1980s.
FARC took three American contractors hostage in February 2003 after their plane crashed during an anti-drug reconnaissance flight in southern Colombia. The three -- Thomas Howes, Keith Stansell and Marc Gonsalves -- remain in FARC captivity.
On April 27, 2003, FARC issued a communique taking credit for the abduction of the three Americans and making certain demands of the Colombian government in exchange for the release of the Americans and other political hostages.
The communique said Palmera was FARC's spokesperson and representative for these negotiations.
"My conscience absolves me and I now join the ranks of so many others who history can and will absolve," Palmera told the judge in an hour-long speech before being sentenced.
He condemned the "oligarchies" that, according to him, for years have oppressed the poor in the country, where more than half of the population lives in poverty, and said Colombia's government is a "corrupt", "elitist and violent regime".
Palmera said he had received a "political trial" and that neither he or nor the FARC supported terrorism.
Lamberth said at Palmera's sentencing the mental torture for the families of the hostages continues.
The U.S. government remains committed to the safe recovery of the three Americans and called for their immediate release, officials said.
Palmera said he hoped the three Americans would be released and that the United States changed its policy towards the guerrilla group so that a peace accord could be negotiated.
Under federal sentencing guidelines, Palmera faced a maximum sentence of life in prison. But prosecutors asked the judge for a sentence of not more than 60 years to comply with the terms of an extradition agreement with Colombia.
Palmera is also awaiting a second trial on drug trafficking charges. Lamberth declared a mistrial in October after a jury was unable to reach a verdict in the first trial on the drug charges.
(Reporting by James Vicini and Adriana Garcia, editing by David Alexander and Eric Walsh)