A Colombian court has convicted a retired army general of murder and sentenced him to 40 years in prison for his role in a notorious 1997 massacre by far-right militias.
The sentence of ex-Gen. Jaime Humberto Uscategui is the most severe imposed on a senior Colombian officer in a case of collusion with right-wing death squads.
A paramilitary force murdered at least 49 suspected guerrilla sympathizers in the village of Mapiripan from July 15-20, 1997. At the time, Uscategui was a brigade commander in charge of a garrison where a pair of chartered planes full of far-right gunmen landed and were dispatched to oversee the mass killings.
During the five-day massacre, the town's judge, Ivan Cortes, made repeated telephone calls for help to Uscategui subordinates but said they ignored his pleas to send troops to halt the massacre.
The killings _ bodies were hacked up and many were thrown in a river _ marked the bloody arrival of right-wing death squads in Colombia's eastern plains, where they would go on to kill hundreds of suspected leftist rebel sympathizers.
Human rights groups have long accused Colombia's military of aiding and abetting right-wing death squads, citing the Mapiripan massacre as a clear case of close cooperation between the army and landowner-backed militias operating outside the law.
Uscategui "did not make even the most minimal effort to try to confirm the extraordinary deeds" reported by Cortes, the three-judge panel of the Bogota Superior Tribunal said in its 90-page ruling, which was issued Monday but not made public until Wednesday.
The court found Uscategui guilty of murder, kidnapping and falsifying public documents.
The ex-general, reached Wednesday by The Associated Press, insisted he was innocent and his lawyer said he would appeal the verdict to Colombia's Supreme Court.
"I have the tranquility of innocence and I also have the tranquility of proof," the 61-year-old Uscategui said. Lawyer Edgar Saavedra said his client would turn himself in as soon as he received the arrest order.
Another former army general, Rito Alejo del Rio, is currently in jail pending trial in civilian court on charges of murder for killings allegedly committed by right-wing death squads that prosecutors say operated hand-in-glove with his forces during the mid-1990s in the turbulent Uraba region on the Caribbean coast.
According to prosecutors, about 120 paramilitaries responsible for the Mapiripan massacre, members of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, arrived in two chartered plans at the San Jose del Guaviare airport, which was controlled by Uscategui's command.
The U.S. State Department declared the group an international terrorist organization in 2001, and Colombia's paramilitaries disbanded four years later under a peace pact with the government of conservative President Alvaro Uribe.
Uscategui was first arrested in 1999 and tried by a military court, which in 2001 sentenced him to 40 months in prison for the crime of "omission."
The battalion commander who failed to halt the Mapiripan massacre, former Col. Hernan Orozco, was convicted of murder in 2007 in the case and sentenced to 40 years in prison.