A US federal judge on Thursday sentenced Hollywood actor Wesley Snipes to three years in prison on Thursday for failing to file tax returns from 1999 to 2004.

Judge William Terrell Hodges laid down the harshest possible sentence against Snipes, after the star of such movies as Demolition Man and the Blade trilogy of vampire movies was found guilty by a jury in February on three misdemeanour charges.

According to US Attorney Scotland Morris, who argued the government’s case, Snipes currently owes more than 20 million dollars in back taxes and penalties.

The actor made a $5-million dollar payment to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) on Thursday, but Morris dismissed it as “a fraction of what he owes.”

“Snipes’ long prison sentence should send a loud and crystal clear message to all tax defiers that if they engage in similar tax defier conduct, they face joining him and his co-defendants … as inmates in prison,” said Nathan Hochman, an official at the US Department of Justice Tax Division.

“The law is very clear: people must pay their taxes,” added IRS Commissioner Douglas Shulman. “There is no secret formula that eliminates a person’s tax obligations, nor are there any special exceptions.”

Attorneys for Snipes, 45, vowed to appeal.

“We were hoping for a complete acquittal,” Snipes attorney Linda Moreno told reporters. “I have faith in the process, and I have faith in the jury system. We will appeal.”

Another defence attorney, Carmen Hernandez, said: “Mr Snipes was sentenced because he’s Mr Snipes.” Judge Hodges, however, denied that Snipes’ celebrity was in any way linked to the harsh sentence.

The actor’s attorneys asked Hodges to allow Snipes to be sent to a prison close to his home in the northeastern state of New Jersey. The judge said he would consider the request.

Snipes first rose to fame in the 1980s when he was cast in the video for Michael Jackson’s single “Bad.”

That proved to be the springboard for a successful acting career characterised by his portrayal of tough-guy characters in movies such as Demolition Man and New Jack City.

A martial arts fanatic, Snipes is famous for inserting quotations from Sun Tzu’s The Art Of War into his characters’ roles.

Snipes, who has appeared in some 50 movies, also starred in White Men Can’t Jump, and Spike Lee’s Jungle Fever.

During the day-long hearing Snipes apologised to the court for his actions.

Hernandez, his defence attorney, argued that Snipes in August offered to plead guilty to one misdemeanour and pay the back taxes to avoid prison time, but that prosecutors rejected the deal, demanding instead that he admit to a felony, a harsher crime.

Snipes displayed no emotion when the sentence was read.

Also sentenced in the case were two co-defendants, Eddie Ray Kahn, 64, and Douglas Rosile, 59, both Florida residents.