Venezuela maintains long prison sentences for US oil executives

MIAMI (AP) — A Venezuelan court has upheld lengthy prison sentences for six U.S. oil executives held in the South American country on corruption charges for more than four years.

Venezuela’s Supreme Court announced the ruling on Friday evening, disappointing family members who had hoped for last fall’s surprise ruling to hear the appeal, and a recent prison visit by a senior State Department official, meant President Nicolás Maduro’s government was seeking to release the men as part of a move to engage the Biden administration in U.S. sanctions talks.

The court did not provide any information about its decision, and the order itself was not immediately available. Venezuela’s judiciary is riddled with pro-Maduro officials who routinely issue decrees in line with the president’s views.

The men known as Citgo 6 – for the Houston oil company where they worked – were lured to Caracas around Thanksgiving in 2017 to attend a meeting at the headquarters of Citgo’s parent company, state-owned oil giant PDVSA . Once there, masked and heavily armed security guards stormed the conference room where they were gathered and led them away. They were later accused of bribery in a never-executed plan to refinance billions in bonds.

The leaders appeared in November before a three-judge appeals committee the same week the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention considered the case of Tomeu Vadell, one of six detained. Five of the men are Venezuelan-American nationals who had lived in the United States for many years, while one, former Citgo chairman Jose Pereira, is a permanent US resident.

“We are deeply saddened by the continued violation of Tomeu’s human rights,” the Vadell family said in a statement.

The men are being held in Helicoide prison in Caracas alongside some of Maduro’s main opponents. The United States has repeatedly called for their release and harshly criticized their detention and sentencing as lacking any semblance of due process.

Considered by many to be political pawns in hostilities between the United States and Venezuela, the men have already been placed under house arrest twice.

But they were returned to jail hours after President Donald Trump welcomed opposition leader Juan Guaidó to the White House in February 2020.

They were placed under house arrest again last April, but that arrangement ended on October 16, the same day a close ally of Maduro was extradited by the African nation of Cape Verde to the United States to face to money laundering charges.

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