A Venezuelan judge has sentenced 6 U.S. oil executives to prison

CARACAS, Venezuela – On Thursday, a judge found six U.S. oil executives guilty of corruption charges, held in Venezuela for three years, and immediately sentenced to prison, blasting hopes of a speedy release that would bring them home to their U.S. families.

Some relatives prepared the frustrating result that occurred on the eve of Thanksgiving.

Alirio Rafael Zambrano, the brother of two men, said he was “undeniably innocent” and a victim of “judicial terrorism”. There is no evidence in the case to support his guilty conviction, he said.

“We, the family, have a heartache to be even further away from our loved ones,” Zambrano said in a phone message in 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 fell 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 in a few years.

The Venezuelan Supreme Court handed down the convictions and imprisonment, 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 only made available to the Associated Press that he had hopes of a fair trial so that he could walk freely, clear his name, and go home with his family in the United States.

Despite his circumstances, Vadell gave hope.

“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.”

Vadell said it was particularly painful to be separated at Thanksgiving from his wife, three adult children, and a newborn grandson he had never held.

“Before experiencing this tragedy, these holidays were very special periods for our family,” Vadell wrote, saying he embraced the traditional American holiday after working at Citaco in 1999 from Caracas to Lake Lake, Louisiana. “They’re causing me a lot of sadness now.”

This is 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 regime. 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 sentence was given to Jose Pereira, a permanent resident.

He was 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 called to the 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 front of the shore of the dormant elevators in the hallway, apparently to take advantage of the air flowing through the open windows.

News media and advocacy groups were denied access to the hearings. There was no response to a letter to Judge Lorena Cornielles requesting permission to observe the Associated Press.

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.”

Former New Mexican governor Bill Richardson negotiated 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 placed under 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 Maduro 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 five other men did not respond to a request to comment through AP lawyers.

Vadell’s daughter, Cristina Vadell, said in a phone interview from Lake Charles 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


Associated Press writer Joshua Goodman in Miami contributed to this report.