Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has said the US ‘unequivocally condemns’ the jailing of the men dubbed the Citgo six and slammed Venezuela’s justice system as ‘kangaroo court’ as he demands the executives are returned to the US.
The six American oil executives – Jose Pereira Ruimwyk, Jose Luis Zambrano, Alirio Jose Zambrano, Jorge Toledo, Tomeu Vadell and Gustavo Cardenas – were found guilty of corruption charges and sentenced to between eight and 13 years in Venezuelan prison this week.
The men are all employees of Houston-based Citgo refining company, owned by Venezuela’s state oil company PDVSA.
They have been held behind bars for the last three years after they were lured to Venezuela for a business meeting and arrested on corruption charges.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has said the US ‘unequivocally condemns’ the jailing of the men dubbed the Citgo six (pictured) and slammed Venezuela’s justice system as ‘kangaroo court’ as he demands the executives are returned to the US
Pompeo condemned the ‘wrongful convictions’ of the Citgo six and blasted what he described as the ‘illegitimate Venezuelan legal system’ in a statement Friday.
‘The United States unequivocally condemns the wrongful convictions of the Citgo 6, in a proceeding that should be described as a kangaroo court,’ he said.
‘After canceling their initial appearance before a judge dozens of times over the last three years, the illegitimate Venezuelan legal system suddenly convicted and sentenced these oil executives without any evidence.’
The Secretary of State said the six men had already ‘wrongfully’ endured three years behind bars in ‘horrific’ conditions and called for them to be free to return to the US.
‘Having already spent over three years wrongfully detained in Venezuela on these specious charges, the majority of the time in horrific prison conditions, these six individuals should be immediately returned to the United States,’ he said.
Pompeo also tweeted his condemnation for the convictions, and hit out at the nation’s election process.
The US does not recognize President Nicolas Maduro as leader and Pompeo has previously said it is ‘impossible’ to have a fair election in the country.
‘We unequivocally condemn the wrongful convictions of the Citgo 6 in Venezuela. There was no justice, no evidence, and no opportunity for defense,’ he tweeted.
‘The use of a legal system to exert political power is yet another example of why free and fair elections are needed in Venezuela.’
Pompeo condemned the ‘wrongful convictions’ of the Citgo six and blasted what he described as the ‘illegitimate Venezuelan legal system’ in a statement Friday
Pompeo also tweeted his condemnation for the convictions, and hit out at the nation’s election process
The Citgo six were found guilty of corruption charges by a judge Thursday and immediately sentenced to prison in the South American nation after a four-month trial that was closed off to the press.
Ruimwyk, a Venezuelan national with US permanent residency and Citgo’s former president, was jailed for 13 years and seven months on charges including embezzlement and conspiracy, the court said.
He was also fined $2 million.
The other five, all US citizens and former vice presidents for the company, were sentenced to eight years and 10 months.
Venezuela’s Supreme Tribunal of Justice announced the verdicts and prison sentences but gave no other comment on the outcome.
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.
One of the men’s lawyers told AFP his client intended to appeal the ruling.
‘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.’
The company’s former president, Jose Pereira Ruimwyk (pictured), a Venezuelan national with US residency, was jailed for 13 years and seven months Thursday
Dennysse Vadell sits between her daughters Veronica, right, and Cristina holding a digital photograph of father and husband Tomeu who has been sentenced to 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
Defense lawyer Jesus Loreto said the five with lesser terms could be released on parole in a couple of years.
All six deny the charges against them.
Their families also contest the charges, saying Maduro controls the judiciary, which they say is notorious for corruption.
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.’
On November 21 2017, the six men were shuttled by corporate jet to the headquarters of PDVSA in Caracas for an apparent budget meeting.
They were told they would be home for Thanksgiving but military intelligence officers swarmed into the boardroom and took them to jail.
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
Wearing T-shirts with the message ‘Free the Citgo 6,’ the Vadell family poses for a photo in Katy, Texas last year
Their arrest launched a purge by Maduro’s government of PDVSA and came at a time when relations between Caracas and Washington were crumbling as Venezuela plummeted into economic and social crisis.
The US has repeatedly asked Venezuela to release the five US citizens and one US permanent resident but the nation has refused.
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.
One of the men, Vadell, penned a letter just before his verdict saying he hoped for a fair trial so he could return home to his family in America.
The US is one of a number of nations that does not recognize President Nicolas Maduro (above)
‘During the trial, the truth has proven undeniable. It proves that I am innocent,’ Vadell wrote in the handwritten letter obtained by
‘I’m now reaching an intersection where if justice is done, I will be able to rebuild my life and try to compensate my family for all the lost moments. The light is intense – the hope is great – give me freedom.’
The concerned family of Vadell, who lived in Louisiana, believe he has lost over 60 pounds while behind bars in the Venezuelan jail.
The US is one of a number of nations that does not recognize Maduro as the Venezuelan president with Vice President Mike Pence declaring Maduro’s 2018 election victory a ‘sham’.
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 US recognized him as the country’s legitimate president.
Maduro retains control of most state functions and the Venezuelan operations of PDVSA, which are under US-imposed sanctions.
Pompeo has been ramping up the pressure to oust the leader as the nation gears up for another election next year, recently branding Maduro a ‘drug-trafficker’ who has created a ‘humanitarian man-made crisis’ in the country.
In June, Pompeo said that ‘elections that represent the will of the people are impossible’ in Venezuela, just months before he also dismissed the US presidential election result in November.
Venezuela opposition leader Juan Guaido took control of Houston-based Citgo, Venezuela’s most profitable overseas asset, in 2019