Conviction of Venezuelan first lady's nephews stands: U.S. judge

(Reuters) - A U.S. judge on Friday refused to overturn the conviction of two nephews of Venezuela’s first lady on charges that they tried to carry out a multimillion-dollar drug deal to help their family stay in power.

Franqui Francisco Flores de Freitas and Efrain Antonio Campo Flores had argued in a motion challenging their conviction that they were entrapped in a sting operation and that their trial was tainted by a witness who perjured himself.

But U.S. District Judge Paul Crotty in Manhattan rejected those arguments.

“The Court is not in any better a position than the jury was to find the facts of this case, nor do the interests of justice require that the verdict be set aside,” he wrote.

Attorneys for Flores de Freitas and Campo Flores did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Flores de Freitas, 31, and Campo Flores, 30, were convicted by a Manhattan jury in November of conspiring to import cocaine into the United States. The two men are nephews of Cilia Flores, the wife of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro.

Days later, Maduro blasted the conviction in a speech as an instance of “U.S. imperialism.”

The two men were arrested in Haiti in November 2015 and flown to the United States following a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration sting operation.

Prosecutors said the two men plotted to use a Venezuelan airport’s presidential hangar to send 800 kgs of cocaine to Honduras for shipment into the United States.

They said recordings of meetings with two DEA informants showed the nephews wanted the cash to counteract money they believed the United States was supplying to Maduro’s opposition before Venezuela’s December 2015 National Assembly elections.

Maduro’s Socialist Party lost its parliamentary majority in the election.

At trial, defense lawyers said neither man was sophisticated enough to have carried out the transaction and did not intend for drugs to be shipped into the United States.

One of the government’s witnesses was a DEA informant posing as a Mexican cartel member who later pleaded guilty to lying to the government to engage in drug trafficking himself. He testified under a cooperation agreement with prosecutors.

In an unusual twist, that witness, Jose Santos-Pena, was revealed at trial to be lying on the stand, and prosecutors threw out his cooperation agreement. Flores de Freitas and Campo Flores argued that they should get a new trial in light of Santos-Pena’s perjury.

Reporting by Brendan Pierson and Nate Raymond; editing by Grant McCool