A wealthy businessman who fought what he claimed were attempts by the Venezuelan government to take over a television network strongly opposed to President Hugo Chavez is suing in U.S. court for $1 billion in damages, claiming a bank he controlled and his stake in the Globovision network were illegally seized for political reasons.
The 124-page lawsuit filed recently by Nelson J. Mezerhane claims the socialist Chavez government illegally took over Banco Federal in June 2010 because Mezerhane refused to surrender his 20 percent stake in Globovision, the only TV network aligned with Chavez's opposition. The government eventually seized those shares as well as 33 other Mezerhane assets and properties.
Mezerhane's Miami-based attorneys say the government takeovers violate both U.S. and international law because they were based on political persecution of an individual rather than a broader public policy.
"There was not a public purpose, and you have to be compensated," said attorney Pedro Martinez-Fraga, who represents Mezerhane along with Ryan Reetz. "There was none of that here."
Mezerhane was stripped of his Venezuelan citizenship and is currently living in Boca Raton, Fla., while seeking political asylum in the U.S., Martinez-Fraga said Wednesday.
"He is a stateless person," the attorney said.
A call to a government lawyer in Caracas seeking comment Wednesday was not immediately returned. Officials at the Venezuelan Embassy in Washington did not immediately respond to an email.
Filed along with the lawsuit are DVDs of a series of nationally-televised remarks by Chavez accusing Mezerhane of being a "monopolist," an "oligarch" and an "enemy of the revolution," which became part of the justification for seizing his business interests.
The government said it seized and liquidated Banco Federal because of financial irregularities and problems, but Mezerhane's lawsuit contains detailed financial statements his attorneys say prove it was not in trouble. Chavez has publicly accused Mezerhane of misappropriating bank deposits, which Mezerhane denies, Martinez-Fraga said.
The lawsuit raises questions about the impartiality of the Venezuelan courts as another justification for filing the case in the U.S.
"He'll be arrested and criminally charged if he tries to return to Venezuela," Martinez-Fraga said.
The lawsuit contends that charges were trumped up that linked Mezerhane to the 2004 assassination of a prominent government prosecutor. Mezerhane spent 37 days in jail and was released only after a key witness recanted, according to the lawsuit. Still, the case against him has not been closed, Martinez-Fraga said.
It's far from certain that Mezerhane could collect any damages if they are eventually awarded by a U.S. judge. In similar cases, attorneys usually go after a foreign country's assets, such as bank deposits, that are held within U.S. borders.
Globovision became Venezuela's the country's sole remaining anti-Chavez TV channel when another station, RCTV, was forced off cable and satellite TV. Globovision's majority owner fled to the U.S. last year after prosecutors issued an arrest warrant on charges of exorbitant interest rates and conspiracy involving an unrelated business. The majority owner, Guillermo Zuloaga, called the charges part of a political vendetta.
Meanwhile, Globovision is appealing a $2 million fine imposed recently by Venezuela's telecommunications agency, which contends the network presented misleading coverage that fomented violence during a prison uprising that pitted armed inmates against National Guard troops.
Associated Press writer Ian James contributed to this story from Caracas, Venezuela.
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