CARACAS, Venezuela – Families have evaporated in hopes of the rapid release of six U.S. oil pipelines who have been detained in Venezuela for three years for an alleged corruption regime, found guilty by a judge and quickly sentenced to prison.
Lawyers and relatives of the so-called Citgo 6 said the men had been wrongly convicted and defense attorneys had vowed to appeal Thursday’s sentences.
Alirio Rafael Zambrano, whose two brothers were among the defendants, said they were “undeniably innocent” and victims of “judicial terrorism”. The evidence presented in the case does not support his guilty conviction, he said.
“For us, the family, it hurts to be even further away from our loved ones,” Zambrano said by phone from New Jersey. “We pray that the leaders of our nation will move forward and continue to fight incessantly for their freedom and human rights.”
Lawyer María Alejandra Poleo, who helped represent the three men, said the case “has no evidence”. “Of course, the defense will appeal the decision,” he said.
The so-called Citgo 6 is an employee of the Houston-based refinery Citgo, which is owned by the Venezuelan state oil company, PDVSA. Three years ago, they were lured to a business meeting in Venezuela and arrested on corruption charges.
Through their arrest, the government of President Nicolás Maduro cleansed the PDVSA, and when relations between Caracas and Washington broke down, when Venezuela plunged into an economic and social crisis.
Five of the men were sentenced to 8 years and 10 months in prison, while one was sentenced to 13 years. Defense lawyer Jesus Loreto said the five, which are of less duration, could be released on parole after a few years.
The Venezuelan Supreme Court handed down the convictions and prison sentences, but made no other comment on the outcome of the trial.
One man, Tomeu Vadell, said in a letter to a Caracas prison that before the verdict he had made it available only to the Associated Press that he hoped for a fair trial so that he could walk freely, clearing his name, and go home to his family. in the United States.
In a statement after the verdict, Vadell’s family said, “We are sad to see that justice has not prevailed today. But we hope that the truth will soon make our sweetheart, Tomeut, free and dear. “
Despite his circumstances, Vadell sounded hopeless.
“At the trial, the truth proved undeniable,” Vadell said in the four-page, handwritten letter. – It proves I’m innocent.
“Now I come to an intersection where, after justice is realized, I will be able to rebuild my life and try to make up for all my lost moments with my family,” he added. “The light is strong – hope is great – give me freedom.”
It was the first time Vadell or any of the so-called Citgo 6 has spoken publicly since he was arrested and charged in an allegedly large-scale corruption system. He was held in a dreaded Caracas prison called El Helicoide.
The other convicts are brothers Gustavo Cárdenas, Jorge Toledo, Jose Luis Zambrano and Alirio Zambrano, who are all U.S. citizens. The longest punishment was given to Jose Pereira, a permanent resident.
They were also accused of embezzling proposals that had never been implemented to refinance some $ 4 billion in Citgo bonds by offering a 50% stake in the company. Maduro then accused them of “treason”.
They all professed innocence.
The men were summoned to PDVSA headquarters where a budget meeting was held for them on 21 November 2017. A corporate plane transported them to Caracas and told them they would be home for Thanksgiving. Instead, military intelligence officers broke into the council chamber and dragged them to jail.
Their lawsuit began four months ago and there were closing arguments on Thursday. The judge immediately pronounced his verdict.
The proceedings took place one day a week in downtown Caracas court. Due to the epidemic, seats were held in the hallway in front of the dormant elevators, apparently to take advantage of the air flowing through the open windows.
News media and advocacy groups have been denied access to the hearings. There was no reply to a letter to Judge Lorena Cornielles requesting permission to observe the AP.
In a statement to the AP prior to the verdict, the Venezuelan Attorney General’s Office said investigators had found “serious evidence” confirming financial crimes potentially detrimental to the state-owned company.
“The Citgo case has progressed normally at all stages established by the Venezuelan criminal proceedings,” the statement said.
Loreto said his client was apparently caught in a “geopolitical conflict” of which he was not a part. According to him, Vadell’s name never appeared in documents read as evidence by prosecutors.
“Nothing refers directly or indirectly to Tomeu,” the lawyer said. “It’s the story of a good guy who was caught against his will for all the wrong reasons.”
The new Mexican governor, Bill Richardson, who was negotiating the release of Americans held by other hostile governments, traveled to Caracas in July and met with Maduro.
He did not win their leave, but days later the two of them – Cardenas and Toledo – were released from prison and taken into house arrest. Two weeks later, the long-delayed trial began.
Richardson told the AP that talks with the Venezuelan government continue despite his “slightly stormy” meeting with Maduro. He said he thought there was an opening for elected president Joe Biden and that Maduro was working to improve relations with Washington.
“I think the Venezuelans were right with me, but further progress is needed,” Richardson said before the verdict. “I hope there will be something positive by Christmas.”
It is not clear what approach Biden will take towards Maduro. Trump aggressively urged Maduro to be removed with comprehensive financial sanctions, and the U.S. Department of Justice accused Madro of being a “narcotrorist,” offering a $ 15 million reward for his arrest.
Vadell’s letter avoided politics. He did not mention Maduro and did not talk about prison guards, although he expressed concern about the “consequences” of the speech.
Encouraging Vadell’s family, he broke his silence, risking the opinions of relatives.
“I think it’s more important that the light of hope illuminates us,” Vadell wrote. “The light of hope can end my family’s sadness.”
The other five men did not respond to a request to comment through AP lawyers.
Vadell’s daughter, Cristina Vadell, said in a telephone interview in Lake Charles, Louisiana, that her father is not the kind of person looking for attention. He focuses more on work and his family.
During his 35-year career at PDVSA and Citgo, Vadell ran a refinery in Charles Lake and then became vice president of refining. The letter attempts to explore this side of his life, he said.
“I think he was willing to take risks and open hearts to come home,” he said. “I think you’re still wondering, ‘What happened?’ He went to a workshop and never came home.
Scott Smith on Twitter: @ScottSmithAP
Joshua Goodman, a writer for the Miami Associated Press, contributed to this report.