By Aruna Viswanatha
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A U.S. judge sentenced a former member of a Colombian rebel group to 27 years in prison on Friday for his role in keeping three Americans hostage in the Colombian jungle in the mid-2000s.
While the man, Alexander Beltran Herrera, did not have much contact with the hostages, his unit kept them for around two years. Herrera had also been responsible for transporting them from one camp to another, forcing them to march for days even though one was injured, according to prosecutors.
Judge Royce Lamberth in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C. handed down the sentence, which was what the government had requested, after hearing from hostages who emotionally recounted their time held by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).
Thomas Howes, Keith Stansell, and Marc Gonsalves were contractors working on a counter-drug surveillance mission when their aircraft broke down in February 2003 and they were taken deep into the jungle and kept bound in chains for much of the next five years, until they were rescued in 2008.
On Friday, Stansell removed his shirt to show the court scars around his neck from the chains, and spoke of being chained to a tree while having malaria, with his body covered in his own feces. "I don't want him to suffer the way we did," Stansell said speaking of Herrera.
Herrera, who was extradited to the United States in 2012, pleaded guilty in March to three counts of hostage-taking. His lawyer described him as a man with a third-grade education who had been trying to build a new life since he left the FARC.
During the hearing, Herrera also apologized through an interpreter to the three men about their time in captivity.
The judge said that he did give Herrera credit for his plea and apology, but said the sentence made sense because of the "evil" and "unspeakable conduct" the FARC was responsible for.
Colombia's new president, Juan Manuel Santos, has bet his political legacy on ending a conflict with the FARC, which has killed more than 200,000 people, displaced millions and left great swathes of rural terrain seeded with land mines.
(Reporting by Aruna Viswanatha; Editing by Grant McCool)