November 10, 2015 / 10:29 PM / 2 years ago

FARC rebel sentenced to 27 years in U.S. prison in Colombia hostage case

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A member of the Colombian FARC rebel group was sentenced to 27 years in U.S. federal prison on Tuesday for his role guarding three American hostages held captive in Colombia in the 2000s.

Diego Alfonso Navarrete Beltran, 43, was extradited to the United States last year to face charges for the 2003 kidnapping of Marc Gonsalves, Thomas Howes and Keith Stansell, civilian contractors rescued by the Colombian military in 2008.

All three men testified at Navarrete Beltran’s sentencing in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, and celebrated it afterwards outside the courthouse.

With peace talks proceeding in Havana between the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) group and the Colombian government, the three said they fear extraditions of other FARC leaders involved in their abduction may be delayed to facilitate the negotiations.

“Does justice stop because of the peace process?” asked Gonsalves in remarks to reporters.

One of the main FARC negotiators at the Havana talks, Dutch national Tanja Nijmeijer, was the first FARC rebel to tell Gonsalves, Howes, and Stansell that they would be executed if anyone attempted to rescue them, Gonsalves said.

“The peace process is not really legitimate,” he said.

The three also expressed concern that the United States may release a FARC leader, who was convicted of helping oversee their abduction, so that he can participate in the talks. Simon Trinidad was sentenced to 60 years in U.S. federal prison in 2008 by U.S. District Court Judge Royce Lamberth.

Lamberth also issued Navarrete Beltran’s sentence on Tuesday, saying his crime was “most comparable” to that of Trinidad, but that he would not issue a longer sentence than the 27 years the U.S. government requested.

Navarrete Beltran guarded the men for 19 months. The former hostages said he mainly used them to get cigarettes and punished them by choking them with chains if they had none to give.

“You were cocky in the jungle, and you were nasty,” said Stansell at the sentencing, pointing at Navarrete Beltran. “Even your fellow guards didn’t really like you.”

Navarrete Beltran addressed the judge in Spanish to beg the forgiveness of the former hostages. His life was also at risk during their captivity, he said, because the FARC executed any members who did not follow orders.

Editing by Kevin Drawbaugh and Chris Reese

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