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If Americans are released, rebel will get lighter term

July 11, 2007|From the Associated Press

WASHINGTON — The Justice Department is offering leniency for a Colombian rebel leader if guerrillas release three Americans from a jungle prison camp unharmed.

Prosecutors made the offer Tuesday in the courtroom where Ricardo Palmera, a leftist paramilitary commander, was convicted of a hostage-taking conspiracy. Though the government's terrorism case against Palmera ended with a hung jury and a mistrial, he faces decades in prison for conspiracy.

Palmera, who is better known by his nom de guerre, Simon Trinidad, is a senior member of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. The force of about 12,000 fighters has battled the Colombian government for four decades and has held three Americans hostage since their plane crashed in 2003.

"Our priority has always been the release of the hostages," Assistant U.S. Attorney Kenneth Kohl said. "If they were released, say, next week, we would take that into consideration."

The Justice Department said it was not trying to negotiate with the group, which the U.S. has labeled a terrorist organization. Rather, authorities said they would view the hostage release as any other overture of cooperation in a criminal case. Prosecutors regularly consider such factors when recommending a sentence.

Judge Royce C. Lamberth will have the final say on sentencing after weighing recommendations from prosecutors, defense attorneys and probation officers.

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 a rebel stronghold.

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