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Damages Fall to Cuba for Colombian Hostage-Taking

WASHINGTON (CN) — Finding that it sponsored a notorious terrorist organization in Colombia, a federal judge ordered Cuba to pay $134 million for a 2003 hostage-taking that left one Army veteran dead.

U.S. District Judge Amit Mehta issued the default judgment on Nov. 4 in Washington, D.C., where the family of Tom Janis had filed the suit with three other Americans who survived the kidnapping ordeal.

Janis, Marc Gonsalves, Thomas Howes and Keith Stansell were all civilian contractors of the U.S. Embassy.

On Feb. 13, 2003, the group had been aboard an aircraft performing counternarcotics surveillance over Colombia when members of the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia shot down their plane.

All four survived the crash, but FARC operatives shot Janis in the head near the wreckage. Janis, a retired aviator for the U.S. Army had been piloting the plane. Howes was his second-in-command; Gonsalves was the chief counternarcotics analyst; and Stansell, a former U.S. Marine, was the mission commander. Luis Alcides Cruz, the sole Colombian citizen on board the flight, was executed in the same manner as Janis.

Over 36 pages, Judge Mehta explains the torture that the three survivors faced during their

1,967 days in captivity, starting just before Valentine's Day.

First, FARC rebels forced Gonsalves, Howes and Stansell to march "for miles in the jungle without the benefit of proper equipment or rest."

Weighed down with backpacks and shackled with chains around their wrists and necks, "the pads on the balls of their feet were worn to the bone ... while trekking miles each day in rugged terrain," Mehta wrote.

When they weren't marching, the three men endured medieval-like medical care at the hands of their captors, concealed beneath the jungle canopy.

The wooden boxes or barbed-wire cages to which they were often confined soon became coated with their feces and filth. Howes suffered from "fly larva growing under his skin that had to be killed by cigarette nicotine and squeezed from his flesh," the ruling says.

What filthy food and contaminated water the hostages were given triggered a series of digestive ailments. Eventually the conditions also forced Gonsalves and Howes to contract the flesh-eating disease leishmaniasis.

Mehta said the FARC cruelly denied the men medication to treat the rot, despite having access to it right then and there.

After giving Stansell spoiled medication, the serviceman's hip became infected and a "baseball sized cyst" grew, rotted and then burst. To remove the cyst, FARC rebels dug into Stansell's skin with a dirty scalpel, excising it without any anesthetic or pain reliever.

For nearly five years, the three men underwent beatings, isolation, starvation, infection and psychological torture. Howes told the court that he recalled "the terrorists threatening to kill not only the hostages but also any civilian with whom they came in contact."

"Consequently, he testified to the emotional horror of accidentally encountering a family of five in the jungle and then later learning that the FARC murdered them all," Mehta wrote.

Stansell's torture led to permanent injuries like tears in his spinal discs and persistent digestive failure. Mehta also described Stansell's battle with "pain in his right torso as a result of the long forced marches he had to endure at times with broken ribs."

Once when Gonsalves was carrying a 55-pound pack across a fallen tree bridge at gunpoint, the bridge gave way, plunging Gonsalves more than four meters to a gully below. He suffered a concussion and was unable to move one arm.

"The FARC forced Gonsalves to continue to carry the backpack another 15 miles through the jungle the following day and for the next several months," Mehta said.

From the concussion, Gonsalves says he now has frequent migraines. The experience has also left him with insomnia. Beyond the physical ailments, Gonsalves also says that he suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, which he claimed caused the failure of his marriage and the loss of custody over his children.

Janis, the slain pilot, had 11 years of service to the Army's Delta Force. "In peak physical condition" when he was killed, Janis left behind a wife of 30 years and three children.

His only daughter, Greer, died earlier this year at the age of 42 after 13 years of struggling with the anguish of her father's killing.

Janis' widow told the court that she and her husband had never spent more than 10 days apart during his frequent work in Colombia.

She had been visiting him there and kissed him good-bye for the last time on the day he was killed. "See you in 10 days, honey girl," Janis had told her as she boarded a commercial flight home to Alabama.

One of the couple's sons learned about Janis' execution from a resident assistant at Walt Disney World where the 23-year-old had been interning.

Another son, 25-year-old Michael, saw an article on CNN while his mother was still traveling back from Colombia. He said it was "utterly devastating" to keep what he read to himself for the next several hours.

Cuba made no attempt to answer the complaint after it was filed in September 2015.

Mehta notes that it was the 1964 Cuban revolution led by Fidel and Raul Castro that inspired FARC.

The organization's connections to Cuba ran deep, according to the ruling, which notes that the terrorist network "sought assistance, advice and support from the Cuban government."

That support included military and tactical assistance, weapons training, and the encouragement of a chummy relationship with the Venezuelan government.

FARC's friendship with Venezuela, Mehta wrote, allowed FARC agents to travel and traffic drugs freely, which in turn supported its "use of violence to promote its political agenda."

Finding all of the requirements met, Mehta ordered Cuba to award a little more than $44 million in compensatory damages per plaintiff and $12 million in solatium damages to Judith Janis, with $5 million allocated to each of her children, including Greer.

Foreign states are generally protected from U.S. lawsuits, but the terrorism exception applies here.

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