The extraordinary case of Ricardo Palmera

On July 10, the trial of Colombian revolutionary Ricardo Palmera, also known also as Simon Trinidad, concluded in Washington with his conviction on one charge of conspiracy to take hostages and a hung jury on four remaining charges. Back in November 2006, his first jury trial ended in a mistrial on all points.

Palmera’s supporters took heart then from the jury’s apparent refusal to put the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), of which Palmera is a leader, in the dock. In both trials, Palmera edified the jury about Colombia’s social problems and recounted the history of the FARC and his own development as a revolutionary.

Ecuadorian police, with CIA help, seized Palmera in January 2004. He was returned to Colombia and on Dec. 31, 2004, was extradited to the United States. He is alleged to have directed the FARC’s capture of three U.S. air-surveillance contractors after their airplane crashed on Feb. 13, 2003.

Palmera maintains he went to Ecuador to negotiate a prisoner exchange between the FARC and the Colombian government with the help of a UN official. Palmera had previously served as a peace negotiator.

The jury was unable to reach a verdict on charges of kidnapping the three U.S. contractors — one charge for each one — and on one charge of materially supporting “terrorists.” Palmera was not allowed to call witnesses, was forced to accept a government-selected lawyer, and has remained in solitary confinement since arriving in the United States.

Between Palmera’s first and second trials, the judge was caught trying to aid government prosecutors by allowing the prosecutors to interview jury members to find out why they did not convict Palmera. While the judge was forced to leave the case, neither he or prosecutors were ever punished, and it was not revealed if the information they obtained was used to get the conviction in the second trial.

Palmera benefited from the testimony of prosecution witness Jhon Pinchao. Pinchao said that in eight years of FARC captivity he never saw Palmera, despite having been held with the three U.S. prisoners. Pinchao, a policeman, escaped in April.

Palmera’s sentence, which some estimate could be 30 years or more, will be announced later. At the trial’s conclusion, lead prosecutor Ken Kohl offered a possible reduction in sentence in return for the FARC’s release of the prisoners.

Ricardo Palmera still faces prosecution on drug trafficking charges in a trial scheduled to begin on Aug. 20.

The circumstances of Palmera’s trial were unusual: An insurgent leader engaged in another country’s civil war is nabbed, brought to the United States and tried. According to lawyer Paul Wolf, an observer at both trials, the U.S. government was trying out a legal cover for holding overseas resistance figures inside the United States for the sake of intimidation.

Regardless of venue, U.S. courts have long adjudicated serious crimes against U.S. citizens unrelated to wars; hostage taking is one example. And once the notion of conspiracy is introduced, all sorts of prosecutorial possibilities open up. In the case of Palmera, U.S. legal innovators were floating the idea that membership in a “hostage-taking organization” signifies conspiracy.

In fact, at his first trial the prosecution identified all 27,000 FARC combatants as co-conspirators. They were urged via advertisements in Colombian newspapers to join Palmera in Washington as defendants.

Paul Wolf praised Palmera’s selfless response to a prosecution suggestion that he was maneuvering to be exchanged for prisoners held by the FARC. Palmera asked that he not be exchanged, adding that he is resigned to a lifetime jail sentence. He stated that exchange of prisoners is a prerequisite for peace in Colombia and expressed concern that negotiations over his own exchange might block the exchange of other prisoners.

Palmera told the court, “The FARC holds that Colombia’s destiny can’t be civil war, but that peace can be achieved. We are not after vengeance. We do insist that the crimes be explained. ... We ourselves want peace and reconciliation for Colombia.”

Palmera’s prosecutors apparently wanted to cast him as a terrorist, a notion rejected by the jury. Conviction on that count would have fed the U.S. propaganda line that President Bush and Colombian President Alvaro Uribe are anti-terrorist allies. The Bush administration has dispensed almost $5 billion toward that project.

“Whatever the reality is,” Palmera told his accusers, “I will take it and be strong. In this case, concretely, my word is under oath. I respect this court ... and most of all I have self-respect. Here I am telling the truth.”

atwhit @megalink.net