March 8, 2019 / 8:43 PM / in 4 months

U.S. charges Maduro's industry minister with sanctions violations

NEW YORK (Reuters) - The U.S. government on Friday announced criminal charges against a top official in Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro’s government for violating sanctions imposed two years ago, when the official was accused of drug trafficking.

Tareck Zaidan El Aissami Maddah, Venezuela’s industry minister, was accused of evading the February 2017 sanctions by hiring U.S. companies to provide private jet services, including for a Feb. 23 return trip to Venezuela from Russia.

Venezuelan businessman Samark Jose Lopez Bello, an El Aissami associate also sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, was also criminally charged, as were several other defendants.

A lawyer for El Aissami could not immediately be located. Lopez Bello’s lawyer did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Venezuela’s Information Ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

El Aissami and Lopez Bello, both 44, were each charged with five counts of circumventing sanctions and violating the Foreign Narcotics Kingpin Designation Act, which targets people believed to threaten U.S. economic and foreign policy interests.

Each count carries a maximum 30-year prison term.

The sanctions against El Aissami were the first by the Trump administration against a top official in Maduro’s government for alleged money laundering and drug trafficking.

El Aissami was accused of helping arrange drug shipments out of Venezuela, including to the United States and Mexico, through his control of a Venezuelan airbase and shipping ports.

“Enforcement of these sanctions is critical to the national security interests of the U.S.,” U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Berman in Manhattan said in a statement.

The White House no longer recognizes Maduro’s government.

Friday’s charges accuse El Aissami and Lopez Bello of illegally using services provided by American Charter Services LLC of Fort Lauderdale, Florida and SVMI Solution LLC of West Palm Beach, Florida.

The Justice Department said these services included travel to or from the Dominican Republic and Turkey, as well as Venezuela and Russia.

Victor Mones Coro, 41, who established ACS, and Alejandro Miguel Leon Maal, 51, who established SVMI, were charged with the same counts as El Aissami and Lopez Bello.

Mones Coro appeared on Friday in the West Palm Beach federal court. His lawyer did not immediately respond to a request for comment. A lawyer for Leon Maal could not immediately be located.

ACS and SVMI were not charged, and did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The case is U.S. v. El Aissami et al, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York, No. 19-cr-00144

Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; Editing by James Dalgleish and Marguerita Choy

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