July 15, 2008
MIAMI -- Political tensions between the U.S. and Venezuela cannot be used as a defense by a Venezuelan man accused of acting as a foreign agent in the cover up of a suitcase of cash smuggled to Argentina, a federal judge ruled Tuesday.
Prosecutors had sought the decision by U.S. District Judge Joan Lenard to prevent attorneys for Franklin Duran from claiming that the charges are politically motivated and aimed primarily at embarrassing the government of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who has clashed with the Bush administration.
"That's not what this case is about," said Assistant U.S. Attorney John Shipley at a hearing.
Duran attorney Ed Shohat repeated his contention that the case is "a completely political prosecution" but added, "we're not going to defend on that basis." Lenard said she may allow Shohat to get into political motivations when questioning certain witnesses during the trial, currently set to begin Sept. 2.
Several people who may testify are captured on FBI recordings discussing the politics behind the investigation, Shohat said.
"It's obvious. The witnesses say it," he said.
Duran, 40, and three other South American men were arrested late last year on charges of operating in the U.S. as unregistered Venezuelan agents. Prosecutors claim they were trying to cover up the Venezuelan source of a suitcase stuffed with $800,000 that was smuggled by plane into Argentina, supposedly for the campaign of new Argentine President Cristina Fernandez.
Fernandez and Chavez have also claimed the case is politically motivated.
Three of the men have pleaded guilty and are awaiting sentencing, with some of them likely to testify in Duran's trial. Duran, who is being held without bail, faces up to 15 years behind bars if convicted.
Shohat said a key part of his defense will be to prove to jurors that Duran and the others were threatened with violence and financial difficulties if they didn't do what Venezuela's government wanted.
"They were threatened with their deaths. They were threatened to be shot. This explains Mr. Duran's conduct," Shohat said.
But Shipley disagreed, urging Lenard to prevent a jurors from hearing a defense that Duran was acting under duress.
"I don't think, honestly, you will see the evidence there," he said.
Lenard did not immediately rule on that issue.