MIAMI (AP) — A federal judge in Miami has awarded $153 million in damages to the family of an exiled Venezuelan lawyer lured back home by his father’s kidnapping only to end up imprisoned for two years on trumped up charges of working as a “financial terrorist” undermining President Nicolás Maduro’s rule.
Carlos Marrón brought the lawsuit after fleeing Venezuela and describing to The Associated Press the beatings, asphyxiation and other abuse he claims to have suffered while detained.
His ordeal drew harsh rebuke from the United Nations’ Human Rights Council, which determined he had been arbitrarily detained for allegedly operating a website that published the black-market exchange rate of Venezuela’s erratic bolivar for U.S. dollars, something the socialist government considered a crime.
The ruling issued Monday is the second of its kind in recent months targeting Maduro’s government over its alleged ties to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia under a little used federal law that allows American victims of foreign terror groups to seize the assets of their victimizers. In September, another federal judge awarded $73 million to the family of a prominent opponent of Maduro who died after falling from the 10th floor of a building belonging to Venezuela’s intelligence services in what the U.S. court likened to “a murder for hire.”
As in the earlier case, Marrón in his lawsuit accused Maduro of heading the “Cartel of the Suns,” a purported drug-smuggling ring involving top Venezuelan officials and guerrillas from the FARC — a designated terrorist group under U.S. law — that allegedly sends 200 metric tons of cocaine from Venezuela into the U.S. each year.
Judge Federico Moreno issued a default judgment against Maduro and five other insiders — including his Attorney General Tarek William Saab and former Supreme Court President Maikel Moreno — for failing to respond to the lawsuit. In it, Moreno wrote that the officials were liable for Marrón’s unlawful imprisonment because they were trying to shut down his Florida business, viewing it as a threat to a “criminal organization” based on narcotics trafficking, acts of terror and human rights violations.
“Defendants exchange drugs for hard currency. The hard currency allows the Defendants to stay in power in Venezuela. Defendants leverage that power to kidnap and torture dissidents” like Marrón, Moreno wrote in a 13-page ruling benefitting Marrón and his family.
Marrón, 45, was arrested by the Venezuelan military counterintelligence unit in April 2018 without a warrant upon his arrival to Caracas’ international airport. He had been forced to travel to Venezuela from Miami — his home for the previous decade — upon learning that his father had been detained by state officials.
It was an elaborate trap seeking to punish Marrón for a website domain, dolarpro.com, he’d bought years earlier as a business prospect but says he never developed. Under a friend’s stewardship, the website began publishing news and information on the nation’s black-market exchange rate, which varied vastly from official figures.
Attorney General Saab likened Marrón’s actions to “mass murder.”
“Perhaps he’s out to destroy more than 30 million Venezuelans,” Saab said in a nationally televised address announcing his arrest.
A 2010 presidential decree made it illegal to publish anything but the official exchange rate, and authorities regularly accused “speculators”
But critics say the huge disparity between the two rates is a vehicle for graft by government insiders.
Marron declined to comment on the judgment and there was no immediate response from Maduro’s government.
Follow Goodman on Twitter: @APJoshGoodman