Barbara Leininger is the mother of Todd Michael Leininger. She lives in Indiana.
Last week, the U.S. government announced the withdrawal of the last remaining American diplomats from Venezuela. But one American won’t be coming home.
My son Todd Leininger, a U.S. citizen, has been unjustly imprisoned in Venezuela since April 2014, and authorities refuse to let him go — even though a court has ordered his release. Todd, a dance instructor from Bloomington, Ind., had traveled to the western city of San Cristóbal with his Venezuelan wife to visit her family and was arrested on trumped-up terrorism charges.
Todd was detained in 2014 in the middle of widespread anti-government protests. The authorities took Todd, his wife and her sister into custody in the midst of the turmoil on the streets after an altercation at a neighbor’s house. The government charged all three with terrorism and arms trafficking. A San Cristóbal court ultimately dismissed the baseless terrorism-related charges (Todd’s wife was also released) and instead charged Todd with attempted homicide and concealment of a firearm.
His trial was mired with irregularities, including the mishandling of crucial evidence. Our family and Todd’s attorney have had serious concerns about the proceedings against him. Still, we were told to play by the rules and not make a fuss. Todd has since served his time. But the Venezuelan authorities have refused to release him.
In November, the San Cristóbal court issued an order for Todd’s immediate and unconditional release. This was not the first time a court had ordered his release, but we had truly believed that this time would be different. I received a video of Todd telling me that he was coming home. I started making Thanksgiving plans, Christmas plans. Months later, the ministry that oversees the prison system still refuses to carry out the court’s order.
The ministry has provided no official justification to the U.S. Embassy or Todd’s lawyer. Prison officials have told our lawyer that he will never be released because he is an American.
Todd is 37 years old now and his physical and mental health are deteriorating in prison. He suffers from Tourette’s syndrome, obsessive-compulsive disorder and anxiety. He has regular seizures if he is not properly medicated. In prison he has had dengue, scabies, kidney stones, a broken foot and intestinal illnesses. He has been the victim of violence and goes for days without receiving food. He can’t take much more. He is threatening to take his own life.
The current situation in Venezuela makes me scared for Todd’s life. The prison has been without power for days. Todd’s attorney has been denied access to him for weeks.
Recently, American reporter Cody Weddle shared his personal story of being detained in Venezuela for 12 hours while authorities investigated him for treason, extraction of military equipment and espionage. In Weddle’s words, “it was clear that authorities are mostly improvising.” If Weddle experienced such instability in only 12 hours, I can only imagine what Todd has faced over the past five years.
Joshua Holt, an American man who spent nearly two years detained in Venezuela, has been vocal about the human rights abuses he experienced throughout his imprisonment. Our government was able to get Holt out of that nightmare in May.
Now, there’s no one left from our government to watch over Todd or ensure that he has access to basic human rights, let alone to push for his release. As the situation in Venezuela continues to deteriorate, I feel as if I’ve been left with nothing more than wishes and prayers.
In the midst of the political turmoil in Venezuela, I ask President Trump and Vice President Pence not to forget my son. Keep his suffering at the forefront of your minds. If and when there can be a dialogue between our two countries, I implore you to put Todd first. He has waited long enough. Our family has waited long enough.