Sun, Aug 13, 2006 - Page 7 News List

Colombian soldiers appeal sentence for frittering away loot


Lawyers for dozens of soldiers vowed on Friday to appeal a military tribunal's decision to send them to jail for up to 10 years for failing to turn over to superiors US$16 million they stumbled upon during a jungle mission in 2003.

On Thursday, a military tribunal in Melgar, 70km southwest of Bogota, sentenced 142 members of an army platoon -- more than half of whom remain at large -- to jail terms ranging from four to 10 years for failing to turn in the money. Some of the soldiers are believed to have fled the country.

The trove of greenbacks allegedly belonged to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia and was found by the soldiers while they were combing the jungle for three US defense contractors kidnapped by the leftist rebels when their plane crashed.

The soldiers' lawyers said the conviction for stealing government property was unfair because the cash their clients found belonged to leftist rebels and not the state.

"The only explanation for such an unjust ruling is that the orders to convict the soldiers came from above," Javier Hernandez, one of the soldiers' lawyers, said. The attorney, however, did not provide any evidence of government interference in the trial.

Juan Manuel Santos, Colombia's defense minister, backs the precedent-setting ruling. The sentencing "reaffirms the obligation of public servants to report to their superiors what they discover while performing their duties," he said in a news release on Thursday.

Soldiers were in a state of disbelief after Captain Carlos Rayon read their guilty verdict on Thursday.

"We've been convicted like criminals or rats," private Jaime Estevez told journalists. "Those in uniform should take note how the army can turn its back on them from one moment to the next."

The two-month-long trial has captivated Colombians, with many empathizing with the plight of poorly paid soldiers whose unearthing of buried treasure represented an overnight windfall they never could have earned during a lifetime of uniformed service.

The trial's conclusion coincided with the national release on Friday of Sonar no cuesta nada, or Dreaming doesn't cost anything, a film depicting the initial euphoria -- and later fear -- that pursued the soldiers from the discovery on Good Friday to their arrests following weeks of revelry that included orgies with prostitutes and a frenzied shopping spree in the southern town of Popayan.

To generate interest in the film, producers planted fake US$100 bills on the floors of shopping malls and other public places, replacing the portrait of Benjamin Franklin with a film character.

Rodrgio Triana, the film's director, said it was easy to sympathize with the soldiers.

"Imagine you're a soldier, earning US$120 a month, and you've just found millions of dollars," he said. "It must have felt like a hallucination."

Even before the convictions, many accused soldiers had to relocate their families to protect them from death threats by jealous neighbors.

"The treasure these soldiers found was not a blessing, but a curse," said Carlos Cetina, another lawyer for the soldiers.

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