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Colombian accused of holding Americans hostage pleads not guilty

By the CNN Wire Staff
updated 3:04 PM EDT, Mon March 12, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: An alleged leftist rebel pleads not guilty to holding Americans hostage
  • Alexander Beltran Herrera is extradited from Colombia to face charges in Washington
  • The suspect moved hostages and kept them imprisoned, an indictment says
  • Justice Department: Beltran Herrera is accused member of the FARC rebel group

Washington (CNN) -- An alleged Colombian rebel whom U.S. authorities accuse of holding three Americans hostage pleaded not guilty Monday.

Alexander Beltran Herrera, 35, was arraigned Monday on charges connected with the imprisonment of U.S. citizens Marc Gonsalves, Thomas Howes and Keith Stansell.

Alleged leftist guerrillas with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, abducted the three U.S. defense contractors in 2003, the Justice Department said. They were among 15 hostages freed in a 2008 rescue mission.

For part of a two-year period beginning in November 2004, Beltran Herrera was responsible for moving the hostages and keeping them imprisoned, the Justice Department said in a statement released Monday.

"Throughout the captivity of these three hostages, FARC jailors and guards, including Beltran Herrera, used choke harnesses, chains, padlocks and wires to restrain the hostages, and used force and threats to continue their detention and prevent their escape," the statement said.

U.S. authorities announced Beltran Herrera's extradition Monday. He arrived in the United States over the weekend.

On Monday, prosecutors described Beltran Herrera as a "fairly high ranking" member of the FARC.

A federal indictment charges him with one count of conspiracy to commit hostage taking, three counts of hostage taking, one count of using and carrying a firearm during a crime of violence, one count of conspiracy to provide material support to terrorists and one count of conspiracy to provide material support to a designated foreign terrorist organization.

He would face a maximum sentence of life in prison if convicted of the charges.

Beltran Herrera appeared in court Monday wearing an orange jumpsuit. He did not speak during his arraignment and needed a translator's help to understand the proceedings.

A court-appointed defense attorney entered his not guilty plea.

The indictment names 17 other accused members of the FARC as defendants. Prosecutors said those suspects are still at large.

The United States first designated the FARC as a foreign terrorist organization in 1997 and renewed that designation in 2005, the indictment says.

The FARC have been at war with the Colombian government since the 1960s. While severely weakened in recent years, the guerrilla group has continued to carry out kidnappings and attack security forces.

Beltran Herrera's extradition "underscores our resolve to hold accountable all those responsible for this crime and we will not rest until every one of them is brought to justice," said Lisa Monaco, assistant attorney general for national security, in a written statement.

The Colombian military rescued Gonsalves, Howes and Stansell in a high-profile helicopter mission in July 2008.

Colombian commandos posed as humanitarian aid workers to free the group, which also included former Colombian presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt and 11 Colombian police and military members.

CNN's Carol Cratty and Catherine E. Shoichet contributed to this report.

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