Venezuela upholds long jail sentences for US oil executives

FILE – This undated file photo posted on Twitter on June 18, 2020 by Venezuela’s Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza, shows CITGO oil executives Jose Angel Pereira, from left to right, Gustavo Cardenas, Jorge Toledo, Jose Luis Zambrano, Tomeu Vadell and Alirio Jose Zambrano, standing outside the Bolivarian National Intelligence Service, in Caracas, Venezuela. A court in Venezuela on Friday, Feb. 4, 2022, has upheld the prison sentences for the six American oil executives on corruption charges. (Posted on Twitter by Jorge Arreaza/Venezuela’s Foreign Ministry via AP File)

MIAMI — A court in Venezuela has upheld long prison sentences for six American oil executives detained in the South American country on corruption charges for more than four years.

Venezuela’s supreme court announced the ruling late Friday, disappointing family members who had hoped the surprise decision last fall to hear the appeal, and a recent jailhouse visit by a top State Department official, signified President Nicolás Maduro’s government was looking to release the men as part of a gesture to engage the Biden administration in talks over U.S. sanctions.

The court didn’t provide any information on its decision, and the order itself was not immediately available. Venezuela’s judicial system is stacked with pro-Maduro officials who routinely issue decrees in accordance with the president’s viewpoints.

The men known as the 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, state-run oil giant PDVSA. Once there, heavily armed masked security officers stormed the conference room where they were gathered and hauled them away. Later they were charged with corruption in connection to a never-executed plan to refinance billions in bonds.

The executives appeared in November before a three-judge appeals panel in the same week as the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention took up the case of Tomeu Vadell, one of the six detainees. Five of the men are dual Venezuelan-American nationals who had lived in the U.S. for many years, while one, former Citgo president Jose Pereira, is a permanent U.S. resident.

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

The men are being held at Caracas’ Helicoide jail alongside some of Maduro’s top opponents. The U.S. has repeatedly called for their release and harshly criticized their detention and conviction as lacking all semblance of due process. 

Seen by many as political pawns in hostilities between the U.S. and Venezuela, the men have twice before been granted house arrest.

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

They were granted house arrest again last April, but that arrangement ended Oct. 16, the same day that a close ally of Maduro was extradited by the African nation of Cape Verde to the U.S. to face money laundering charges.