Six American oil executives held for three years in Venezuela have been found guilty of corruption charges and sentenced to between eight and 13 years in prison.
Washington has repeatedly asked Caracas to release the so-called Citgo 6, who are employees of Houston-based Citgo refining company, owned by Venezuela’s state oil company PDVSA.
They had been lured to Venezuela three years ago for a business meeting and were arrested on corruption charges.
Six American oil executives (pictured) held for three years in Venezuela have been found guilty of corruption charges and sentenced to between eight and 13 years in prison
A corporate jet shuttled them to Caracas and they were told they would be home for Thanksgiving but military intelligence officers swarmed into the boardroom and took them to jail.
The company’s former president, Jose Pereira Ruimwyk, a Venezuelan national with US residency, was jailed for 13 years and seven months on charges including embezzlement and conspiracy, the court said. He was also fined $2 million.
Former vice presidents Jose Luis Zambrano, Alirio Jose Zambrano, Jorge Toledo, Tomeu Vadell and Gustavo Cardenas, were sentenced to more than eight years.
One of the men’s lawyers told AFP his client intended to appeal the ruling.
The company’s former president, Jose Pereira Ruimwyk (pictured), a Venezuelan national with US residency, was jailed for 13 years and seven months
‘The evidence for the crimes they are accused of was not there, it did not even mention the six of them,’ said the lawyer, Maria Alejandra.
‘The defense, we were ready for this decision because they are political prisoners.’
Their arrest launched a purge by president Nicolas Maduro’s government of PDVSA and at a time when relations between Caracas and Washington were crumbling as Venezuela plummeted into economic and social crisis.
Defence lawyer Jesus Loreto said the five with lesser terms could be released on parole in a couple of years.
Dennysse Vadell sits between her daughters Veronica, right, and Cristina holding a digital photograph of father and husband Tomeu who has been sentenced for more than eight years in prison
Maria Elena Cardenas is pictured with her son Sergio, who has been suffering nightmares since his father, Gustavo, was arrested in 2017
Alirio Rafael Zambrano, brother to two of the men, said they were ‘undeniably innocent’ and victims of ‘judicial terrorism’, adding no evidence in the case supports a guilty conviction.
‘We, the family, are heartbroken to be separated even further from our loved ones,’ he said.
‘We pray that the leaders of our nation step forward and continue to fight unceasingly for their freedom and human rights.’
Prior to the verdict, the office of Venezuela’s chief prosecutor said that investigators found ‘serious evidence’ that corroborated financial crimes potentially damaging to the state-run company.
This shocking image shows Citgo executive Tomeu Vadell at his home in Lake Charles, Louisiana in 2015 (left) and in custody in Venezuela (right) – his family believe he has lost over 60 pounds since his arrest
Their arrest launched a purge by president Nicolas Maduro’s (pictured) government of PDVSA and at a time when relations between Caracas and Washington were crumbling
The families of the six men contest the charges, saying Maduro controls the judiciary, which they say is notorious corruption.
US Democratic Party heavyweight Bill Richardson, who has managed international negotiations for a number of high-profile American detainees, traveled to Venezuela in mid-July and met with Maduro.
He managed to get two of them released and put under house arrest, but the rest remained at the national intelligence agency’s headquarters in Caracas.
Roger Carstens, the US envoy for hostage affairs, said in June all six men were ‘in mortal danger’, with several displaying Covid-19 symptoms.
Wearing T-shirts with the message ‘Free the Citgo 6,’ the Vadell family poses for a photo in Katy, Texas last year
Venezuela opposition leader Juan Guaido took control of Houston-based Citgo, Venezuela’s most profitable overseas asset, in 2019
The United States is one of a number of nations that no longer recognizes Maduro as Venezuela’s president. Since early 2019, it has been trying unsuccessfully to oust the leftist leader, who presides over a crumbling economy from which millions have fled.
Venezuela opposition leader Juan Guaido took control of Houston-based Citgo, Venezuela’s most profitable overseas asset, in 2019 after the United States recognized him as the country’s legitimate president.
President Nicolas Maduro retains control of most state functions and the Venezuelan operations of PDVSA, which are under U.S-imposed sanctions.