A federal judge yesterday sentenced one of several men accused in the 1976 assassination of former Chilean ambassador Orlando Letelier to 12 years in prison, the maximum sentence allowed under the terms of a plea bargain with the government.

Jose Dionisio Suarez Esquivel, 52, made no statement during the brief hearing before U.S. District Chief Judge Aubrey Robinson. The hearing was attended by Suarez's wife, Elizabeth, and their 20-month-old son.

Despite letters and pleas for leniency from Suarez's family and friends, Robinson said he was giving Suarez the harshest sentence allowed under the plea agreement because of the harm he had caused innocent bystanders in the assassination.

Under the law to which Suarez pleaded guilty -- conspiring to murder a foreign official -- the maximum sentence could have been life imprisonment.

But Robinson agreed when the plea agreement was struck that he would not sentence Suarez to more than 12 years.

Letelier and his secretary, Ronni Moffit, were killed on Sept. 21, 1976, by a car bomb that was set off by remote control as they drove around Sheridan Circle in the Kalorama area of Northwest Washington.

Moffit's husband, Michael, who was sitting in the back seat, was injured.

Suarez initially pleaded not guilty to the charge, but changed his plea in early September after prosecutors agreed not to press charges against his wife for hiding him from authorities.

The 1976 bombing, which authorities said was planned by officials of the Chilean secret police, was seen as an attempt to silence Letelier, a critic of the Chilean military regime of Gen. Augusto Pinochet.

The American who placed the bomb, Michael Townley, pleaded guilty in 1978 to conspiring to assassinate Letelier.

Three other men implicated in the plot remain fugitives, and two are believed to be in Chile, according to Judy Smith, a spokeswoman for U.S. Attorney Jay B. Stephens.

Suarez was held for questioning in the assassination plot in 1978, and served nearly a year in D.C. jail on a contempt charge for refusing to answer questions about the matter before a federal grand jury.

After his release, authorities could not find him for 12 years. He was arrested in St. Petersburg, Fla., in April.