WASHINGTON – The Trump administration on Wednesday blamed Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro’s regime for the death of an opposition leader and vowed to ratchet up pressure on Maduro’s government “until democracy is restored” to that South American country.
At issue is the death of Fernando Alban, a Maduro critic and opposition party councilman, who was detained on Friday by Venezuelan intelligence authorities after he returned from New York.
Alban died Monday while still in custody. Government officials said he committed suicide; critics believe he was assassinated. Alban was reportedly arrested on suspicion of being involved with the failed assassination attempt on Maduro in August.
The United Nations has said it will investigate Alban’s death, along with other human rights abuses in Venezuela.
In its statement Wednesday, the Trump administration made it clear it holds Maduro’s regime response for Alban’s death.
“The United States condemns the Maduro regime’s involvement in the death of Venezuelan opposition councilman Fernando Alban,” White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said in a statement.
“Venezuelan authorities took Alban into custody on October 5, upon his return from the United Nations General Assembly, where he spoke to the world about the importance of returning democracy to the people of Venezuela,” she said. “He died three days later while in the custody of Venezuela’s intelligence service.”
The White House has already taken a hardline against Maduro’s government, seen as a corrupt and repressive left-wing regime. The administration imposed sanctions on Venezuela soon after Maduro’s re-election in May, and Trump has accused the socialist politician of bankrupting Venezuela and driving its people into “abject poverty.”
The White House statement on Alban stands in sharp contrast to the administration’s more muted reaction to the disappearance – and alleged murder – of a dissident Saudi Arabian journalist, Jamal Khashoggi.
More than a week ago, Khashoggi entered Saudi Arabia’s consulate in Turkey for some routine paperwork. He has not been seen since.
Turkish officials allege he was killed in the compound; Saudi officials say he left the building unharmed.
Trump administration officials waited until Tuesday before commenting on the situation, and they have not accused Saudi Arabia – a key U.S. ally – of any malfeasance.
“We’re not going to make any judgments about what had happened to him,” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said Tuesday.
“The United States is certainly concerned about his whereabouts,” she said, adding that senior State Department officials have spoken with their Saudi counterparts about the matter.
Trump did not comment until Monday when reporters asked him about the matter.
“I am concerned about it. I don’t like hearing about it,” Trump said then. “And hopefully that will sort itself out. Right now, nobody knows anything about it.”
Nauert rejected suggestions that the Trump administration had been slow and equivocal in its response to Khashoggi’s fate.
“Sometimes we decide to conduct our conversations and to conduct our diplomacy more privately than publicly because we feel that that could have the best outcome, and I’ll leave it at that,” she said.
Contributing: Erin Kelly and the Associated Press
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