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Colombian Hostages Lose Claim to Frozen Assets

CHICAGO (CN) - Three Americans held hostage by Colombian terrorists cannot attach the frozen assets of an alleged money launderer, a federal judge ruled.

Keith Stansell, Marc Gonzalves and Thomas Howell were civilians conducting an aerial narcotics surveillance mission over Colombia in 2003 when the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) shot down their plane.

They were held captive for 1,967 days until they were rescued in 2008.

In 2010, the men won a judgment against FARC for $318 million in compensatory damages.

Enforcing the judgment has been difficult, however, because FARC is designated as both a "Specially Designated Global Terrorist," and as a "Significant Foreign Narcotics Trafficker" under the Kingpin Act. All of its assets in the U.S. are concealed or frozen.

To collect their damages, the men filed a Writ of Garnishment against the assets of a Colombian money exchange house, Mercurio International, which were frozen for laundering money linked to FARC. They argued that Mercurio's assets were "blocked assets" within the meaning of the Terrorism Act because of its connection to FARC.

A federal judge in Florida granted the men's writ, but the 11th Circuit reversed Wednesday.

"The Terrorism Act defines what a 'blocked asset' 'means,' not what the term merely could 'include.' When a statutory definition declares what a term 'means' rather than 'includes,' any meaning not stated is excluded," according to the unsigned opinion.

"Section 201(d)(2)(A) declares that 'blocked asset' means an asset frozen under select provisions of the Trading Act and the Economic Powers Act," the three-judge panel added. "Assets frozen under the Kingpin Act, however, are absent from that definition. The unavoidable conclusion is that 'blocked assets' under the Terrorism Act does not mean assets frozen pursuant to the Kingpin Act."

Although the three men presented evidence showing that Congress intended to broadly define "blocked asset," the 11th Circuit said that "legislative history does not change the clear, codified text of the Terrorism Act."

"As the plain language of § 201(d)(2)(A) states, the Terrorism Act defines 'blocked assets' to cover only those assets frozen under specified sections of the Trading Act and the Economic Powers Act," the judges wrote. "Mercurio's assets were frozen under neither of those statutes. Thus, the district court's judgment in favor of appellees relied on an erroneous interpretation of the Terrorism Act."

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