Six American oil executives held for three years in Venezuela have been found guilty of corruption charges and immediately sentenced to prison.
Alirio Rafael Zambrano, brother to two of the men, said they were "undeniably innocent" and victims of "judicial terrorism". No evidence in the case supports a guilty conviction, he said.
"We, the family, are heartbroken to be separated even further from our loved ones", Zambrano said in a phone message from New Jersey. "We pray that the leaders of our nation step forward and continue to fight unceasingly for their freedom and human rights."
Attorney María Alejandra Poleo, who helped represent three of the men, said the case was "void of evidence". "Of course, the defense will appeal the decision," she said.
The so-called Citgo 6 are employees of Houston-based Citgo refining company, which is 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.
Their arrest launched a purge by President Nicolás 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.
Five of the men were sentenced to prison terms of 8 years and 10 months, while one of them received a 13-year sentence. Defense attorney Jesus Loreto said the five with lesser terms could be released on parole in a couple of years.
Venezuela's Supreme Tribunal of Justice announced the verdicts and prison sentences but offered no other comment on the trial's outcome.
One of the men, Tomeu Vadell, has said in a letter written in a Caracas jail and provided exclusively to The Associated Press before the verdict that he had hopes for a fair trial so he could walk free with his name cleared and go home to his family in the United States.
None of the six, had spoken publicly since being arrested and charged. Vadell has been held at a feared Caracas jail called El Helicoide.
"During the trial, the truth has proven undeniable," Vadell said in the four-page hand-written letter. "It proves that I am innocent."
They were also charged with embezzlement stemming from a never-executed proposal to refinance some $4 billion in Citgo bonds by offering a 50% stake in the company as collateral. Maduro at the time accused them of "treason".
They all pleaded innocence.
Loreto said his client appeared to have been caught up in a "geopolitical conflict" of which he was not a part. He said Vadell's name never appeared on any of the documents prosecutors read into evidence.
"There’s nothing that refers to Tomeu in any way -- directly or indirectly," the lawyer said.
Former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, who has negotiated the release of other Americans held by hostile governments, traveled to Caracas in July and met with Maduro.
He didn't win their freedom, but days later two of them - Cárdenas and Toledo - were freed from jail and put in house detention. Two weeks later, the long-delayed trial began.
The men were summoned to the headquarters of PDVSA for what they were told was a budget meeting on November 21, 2017. A corporate jet shuttled them to Caracas and they were told they would be home for Thanksgiving. Instead, military intelligence officers swarmed into the boardroom and hauled them off to jail.
Their trial started four months ago and closing arguments took place Thursday. The judge immediately announced her verdict.
The proceeding played out one day a week in a downtown Caracas court. Due to the pandemic, sessions were held in front of a bank of dormant elevators in a hallway, apparently to take advantage of air flowing through open windows.
News media and rights groups were denied access to the hearings. There was no response to a letter addressed to Judge Lorena Cornielles seeking permission for The Associated Press to observe.
The office of Venezuela’s chief prosecutor said prior to the verdict in a statement to AP that investigators found "serious evidence" that corroborated financial crimes potentially damaging to the state-run company.
https://abcnews.go.com/US/wireStory/ap- ... m-74420152
Were these oil executives arrested and convicted for political purposes?
So the Venezuelan government can have someone else to blame for their problems, in front of their people? Going along with the narrative of wealthy business dealing American foreigners being responsible for Venezuela's troubles, and trying to shift the blame and try to divert the people's outrage.
Like in many of these types of cases, when they arrested the individuals, they then had to follow up and convict them, even though the trial was three years later, otherwise it would basically be admitting that the whole thing had been a farce, or that the government had permitted guilty individuals to go free.