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updated 9/21/2006 10:59:35 PM ET 2006-09-22T02:59:35

Former Peruvian spymaster Vladimiro Montesinos was found guilty and sentenced to 20 years in prison Thursday for masterminding a deal that parachute-dropped 10,000 assault rifles to Colombian leftist guerrillas seven years ago.

Montesinos appeared impassive as the court tribunal led by Judge Ines Villa Bonilla meted out the sentence, closing a nearly three-year trial that has heard testimony resembling a spy thriller.

The verdict was rendered after nearly 10 hours of court clerks reciting the facts of the case for the record. The court ordered Montesinos, 61, to pay a fine of $3.1 million to the governments of Peru and Colombia to split between them. Montesinos told the judges he plans to appeal.

Men working for Montesinos posed as Peruvian military representatives to purchase Soviet-era assault rifles from Jordan that were delivered in 1999 to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, the court ruled.

‘Merchant of death’
The plot includes a stealth Ukrainian flight crew, a French financier and a Lebanese arms dealer known as the “Merchant of Death.”

Montesinos is already serving a 15-year term on about a dozen corruption convictions, which under Peruvian law are served concurrently. This latest sentence adds five years to his prison time. Counting time served, he is now scheduled for release March 17, 2023 — just before his 78th birthday — the court indicated.

He faces a possible 35-year sentence in another trial for allegedly directing a paramilitary death squad during the first half of ex-President Alberto Fujimori’s 10-year autocratic government. Other trials are ongoing or have yet to begin.

Montesinos — who during the 1990s gained control of Peru’s military, the courts, and most media outlets — maintained throughout the trial that he had nothing to do with the arms deal and that he was the one responsible for uncovering the scheme.

Testimony from Montesinos’ 18 co-defendants — most of whom received sentences ranging from 6 to 15 years — overwhelmingly fingered him as the leader of the plot.

Montesinos’ influence permeated a nation already weakened by chronic corruption — until Fujimori’s regime collapsed in November 2000 amid a bribery scandal involving his spymaster.

The arms scandal came to light three months earlier when Montesinos made a rare public appearance with Fujimori to announce that Peruvian authorities had broken a gunrunning ring led by brothers Jose Luis and Luis Frank Aybar, both Peruvian army veterans.

But their version quickly unraveled under skepticism from Colombian and Jordanian officials.

Montesinos fled Peru but was captured in Venezuela in June 2001. He has since been locked up in the high-security naval prison in Lima’s port of Callao, which he helped design for Peru’s most notorious guerrilla leaders.

Fujimori, who was not charged in the arms trafficking case, also fled, first going to Tokyo, then to Chile, where he remains fighting extradition to his homeland.

Allegations of torture
Co-defendant Jose Luis Aybar said he helped arrange the deal at Montesinos’ behest, but denied knowing the arms were destined for Colombia. He testified he was tortured by Montesinos’ intelligence agents, who warned him to take the blame for the illegal arms deal or his family would face the consequences.

Aybar and his brother were sentenced Thursday to 15 years imprisonment.

In 1998, the Aybars contacted Miami-based businessman Charles Acelor, a French-born naturalized U.S. citizen, in search of assault rifles.

Acelor, who also received a 15-year sentence, put them in touch with international weapons broker Sarkis Soghanalian, a Turkish-born Lebanese citizen and U.S. resident — whose long career supplying arms to ex-dictators like Nicaragua’s Anastasio Somoza and Iraq’s Saddam Hussein earned him the nickname “The Merchant of Death.”

Soghanalian — one of 15 defendants tried in absentia in the case — has said he personally negotiated the deal with Montesinos, but insisted he believed it was a legal transaction. The court reserved dictating a sentence for him.

Peruvian State Attorney Juan Portocarrero said Peru is trying to extradite Soghanalian from the United States.

The weapons were reportedly bought in three lots and delivered on four flights between March and August 1999 by an Ukraine-registered military surplus cargo jet.

The original plan allegedly had been to sell another 40,000 rifles to the rebels but Jordan canceled the deal when the CIA tipped it off in mid-1999 that the rifles were turning up in the hands of captured Colombian guerrillas.

Copyright 2006 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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