Six American businessmen in Venezuela were on Thursday convicted on the grounds of corruption by Venezuela’s highest court, the Supreme Tribunal of Justice. The ruling judge gave the order that they are remanded in prison custody immediately. The businessmen have been held in the country for about 36 months, NY Times reports.
Families of the businessmen had vigorously protested their innocence. Family members, who had been expecting things to end positively, had their hopes dashed on Thursday when the sentences were announced. The relatives of the convicted men said there was no evidence on the ground to find the men guilty. Attorney Maria Alejandro Poleo, the legal representative for about three of the men, echoed the same sentiments.
The men, who have since been named the “Citgo 6,” are employees of Citgo Refining company based in Houston. The company is owned by PDVSA, Venezuela’s state oil company. The country had used the pretext of a business meeting as bait to convince the men to visit Venezuela. When they arrived in the country, they were arrested on corruption charges by law enforcement officers.
Their arrest came on the heels of worsening diplomatic relations between the US and Venezuela, even as the country was plunged into an economic crisis by leaders who had mismanaged the economy of the country over the years.
Five of the men got prison sentences of eight years and ten months, while one was sentenced to thirteen years in prison. According to defense attorney Jesus Loreto, the five men would be eligible for parole in a few years. The Supreme Tribunal of Justice reeled out the sentences while offering no further comments on proceedings leading to the recent decision, ABC News writes.
While in prison, one of the men, Tomeu Vadell, had written a letter to his family saying he hoped he could be set free soonest as he was entirely innocent of the accusations leveled against him. Vadell had been held at the dreaded Caracas Jail all this while.
Others convicted by the Venezuelan court included Gustavo Cardenas, Jorge Toledo, Jose Luis Zambrano, and Alirio Zambrano, who are brothers, and Jose Periera. Periera, the man who was given the longest sentence, is a permanent resident in the US, while the other five are US citizens. Their crime was the embezzlement of funds relating to $4 billion in Citgo bonds.
In 2017, the six men were told to come for a budget meeting at the headquarters of PDVSA in Caracas. When they arrived in the country, during the board meeting, military intelligence officers arrested all of them.
Trial proceedings kicked off in August, and the closing arguments were held Thursday, after which the Judge announced her ruling. No media or rights group presence was allowed at the proceedings.
Former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson had tried to win their freedom but was unsuccessful. Richardson, who had in the past, negotiated the release of Americans held by countries against their will, met with President Nicolas Maduro in July. However, he only managed to secure the release of two prisoners, Cardenas and Toledo, from jail to house arrest.
Richardson said that with the coming in of President-elect Joe Biden, there might be a window of opportunity for talks to resume once again. President Donald Trump had sought to remove Maduro from office while leveling a series of financial sanctions against the South-American country.