American released from prison in Venezuela after 5 years

PHOTO: Todd Leininger is seen in this November 2018 video grab in prison in Venezuela.PlayBarbara Leininger
WATCH News headlines today: April 26, 2019

American Todd Leininger has been released by Venezuela's government and returned to the United States, his family said Friday.

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"Over the past five years, all I have hoped and worked for is Todd’s safe return home. This was a long and often heart-breaking journey, but I am so grateful to be reunited with my son and to have him back home in Indiana," his mother Barbara Leininger said in a statement.

Leininger had been held for five years, accused of arms trafficking and attempted murder. The U.S. called the charges trumped up.

His release comes at a moment of heightened tension between the Trump administration and the government of Nicolas Maduro. The socialist leader is under tight U.S. sanctions for his crackdown on political opposition, seizure of power and blockade of international humanitarian aid. The U.S. and over 50 other countries back the leader of the National Assembly Juan Guaido as the legitimate president.

PHOTO: Venezuelas President Nicolas Maduro speaks during a meeting with members of the government at the Miraflores Palace Caracas, Venezuela, April 23, 2019. Miraflores Palace/Reuters
Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro speaks during a meeting with members of the government at the Miraflores Palace Caracas, Venezuela, April 23, 2019.

The State Department confirmed Leininger's release, telling ABC News that it was "overdue."

Leininger was released from prison in Venezuela's capital of Caracas on Wednesday, and flown to Miami on Thursday, where his family will meet him.

While imprisoned, "he endured mental and physical illnesses and extreme conditions throughout his imprisonment, including lack of food and medicine, made even worse in recent months by the escalating crisis in the country," according to his family.

PHOTO: Todd Leininger is seen in this November 2018 video grab in prison in Venezuela. Barbara Leininger
Todd Leininger is seen in this November 2018 video grab in prison in Venezuela.

As many as a dozen other U.S. citizens are detained in Venezuela by the Maduro government, according to a State Department official. A spokesperson who said the U.S. "welcomes" Leininger's release called on Maduro to release the others.

"We remain concerned about other Americans in prison in Venezuela," they said in a statement. "We continue to call for their immediate release."

That was said to be complicated by the withdrawal of U.S. personnel from Venezuela. In March, the U.S. embassy in Caracas closed its doors and all American personnel returned to the U.S. Without consular officials on the ground to advocate for prisoners' release, their freedom was increasingly in jeopardy.

Among those still imprisoned are six employees of the U.S. oil company CITGO, who the State Department said "have been wrongfully detained for more than a year." CITGO is owned by Venezuela's state oil company PdVSA.

For Leininger, there were multiple false starts in securing his release. In May 2018, a judge granted him parole for good behavior, but he was never released. Last November, a court ordered his full release, but it never came.

At the time, he recorded a video message for his mother Barbara, telling her, "I love you, and I think I'm going to be coming home very soon, Mom. It's really, really exciting. It's very unsure though because we're here in Venezuela... You know how it's been for me."

In her statement Friday, Barbara Leininger thanked the State Department and members of Congress, as well as the Swiss embassy. The U.S. named Switzerland as its protecting power in Venezuela, to look after its citizens and embassy now that U.S. diplomats are gone.