Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Colombian rebel leader Ricardo Palmera was convicted yesterday of helping hold three Americans hostage for years in jungle prison camps. He is the only person ever found responsible for the crime.

Palmera, who is better known by his nom de guerre, Simon Trinidad, is the most senior commander ever captured from Latin America’s largest rebel group. He was extradited to the United States in 2004 and charged with hostage and terrorism charges.

Palmera is a senior member of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known by its Spanish acronym FARC. The Marxist force of about 12,000 fighters has battled the Colombian government for four decades. The U.S. government considers it a terrorist organization and a drug cartel.

Jurors found Palmera guilty of conspiracy to commit hostage-taking but were split over whether to convict him of supporting terrorism. A federal judge sent them back to keep deliberating that charge and three counts of actual hostage-taking.

The three Americans — 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 late April.

Palmera denied ever seeing the three men but acknowledged serving as a negotiator to try to force a prisoner swap. He stood expressionless as the jury foreman read the verdict.

Neither Palmera’s attorney nor the Justice Department commented on the conviction because the jury continued to deliberate the other counts.

The jury was split over whether Palmera actually held the three men hostage and whether that was in support of a terrorist organization. Though prosecutors repeatedly referred to the FARC rebels as terrorists, Palmera described the organization as a legitimate military organization and compared the dispute to the U.S. Civil War.

Mr. Gonsalves’ mother, Jo Rosano, said she worried that the conviction would make it harder to win the hostages’ release. “Most countries hate America. This will only make it worse,” she said.

She supports negotiating with the rebels for a prisoner exchange, something the government has refused.

Palmera’s first trial ended in November with a hung jury. The Justice Department immediately brought the charges again. Palmera faces up to 30 years in prison and is awaiting trial on drug charges once this case is complete.

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