US court awards $73 million for Venezuelan opponent's death

FILE - A framed portrait of opposition activist Fernando Alban shadowed by an image of Jesus Christ sits on the flag-draped casket containing his remains, during a solemn ceremony at the National Assembly headquarters, in Caracas, Venezuela, Tuesday, Oct. 9, 2018. A federal judge in Miami has awarded on September 2022, $73 million in damages to Albans family who died while in custody in what he described as a murder for hire carried out by a criminal enterprise led by President Nicolas Maduro. (AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos, File) (Ariana Cubillos, Copyright 2018 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

MIAMI – A federal judge in Miami has awarded $73 million in damages to the family of a prominent opponent of Venezuela's socialist government who died while in custody in what he described as a “murder for hire” carried out by a criminal enterprise led by President Nicolás Maduro.

Fernando Albán was arrested in 2018 upon arrival to the international airport in Caracas from New York, where he was part of a delegation that had denounced Maduro's government on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly. He died three days later in what authorities initially described as a suicide jump from the 10th floor of a building belonging to Venezuela's intelligence services.

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Albán's death provoked international outrage and condemnation from the U.S. Last year, his widow and two children sued Maduro and several high-ranking members of his government for carrying out the kidnapping, torture and murder of the one-time Caracas councilman.

The family accused the men of belonging to the “Cartel of the Suns,” a purported drug-smuggling ring involving top Venezuelan officials and guerrillas from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia — a designated terrorist group — that allegedly sends 200 metric tons of cocaine from Venezuela into the U.S. each year.

Judge Darrin P. Gayles issued a default judgment against the cartel for failing to respond to the lawsuit in a previously unreported ruling last week. In it, the court found that what it calls the “Maduro criminal enterprise” is liable for federal racketeering offenses in Albán's death because its entire purpose is to "exercise unlawful authoritarian control over Venezuela" through narcotics trafficking, acts of terrorism and human rights violations.

Adopting the earlier findings of a magistrate judge, the court said operatives for the Maduro government tailed Albán while he was still in New York, taking surveillance photos and sending information back to Venezuela that facilitated his kidnapping and murder upon his return home.

“Mr. Albán’s murder was a murder for hire because members of the Maduro Criminal Enterprise who committed the murder received payment (in the form of salaries) from the Maduro regime,” the court said.

The court found that the Cartel must pay $73 million to Albán's estate for the pain and suffering caused by his death.

However, it's unclear how the survivors will collect such a large reward. While Maduro and other defendants named in the original complaint — including his Defense Minister and the head of Venezuela's supreme court — have been criminally charged in the U.S. with narco-terrorism and corruption, they're under little pressure from Albán's former cohorts in the opposition to abandon power.

Meanwhile, the Biden administration has shown a willingness to ease sanctions on the oil-rich OPEC nation in exchange for progress in talks with the opposition aimed at fostering a more democratic environment for the 2024 presidential election.

Additionally, the only alleged cartel ringleader who is in U.S. custody, retired Army Gen. Cliver Alcala, is represented by a court-appointed legal team after claiming he was unable to pay for his defense.

A lawyer for Albán’s family declined to comment.

Albán's case has also been denounced at the International Criminal Court, which is investigating allegations of torture and killings by Maduro's security forces. In late 2021, Attorney General Tarek William Saab announced that two members of the feared SEBIN intelligence service had been sentenced to nearly six years in prison for negligence in connection to Alban's death while in their custody.

Follow Goodman on Twitter: @APJoshGoodman

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