CARACAS, Venezuela — Hopes of families for a quick release for six American oil executives detained in Venezuela for three years over an alleged corruption scheme have evaporated, with a judge finding them all guilty and quickly sentencing them to prison.
Attorneys and relatives of the so-called Citgo 6 said the men were wrongly convicted, and the defense lawyers vowed to appeal Thursday’s verdicts.
Alirio Rafael Zambrano, whose two brothers were among the defendants, said they were “undeniably innocent” and victims of “judicial terrorism.” No evidence presented 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 by phone 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, had said in a letter written in a Caracas jail and provided exclusively to The Associated Press before the verdict that he hoped for a fair trial so he could walk free with his name cleared and go home to his family in the United States.
In a statement after the verdict, Vadell’s family said: “We are sad to see that justice did not prevail today. But we are hopeful that the truth will set our loved one, Tomeu, free and home to us soon.”
Despite his circumstances, Vadell had expressed hopefulness.
“During the trial, the truth has proven undeniable,” Vadell said in the four-page hand-written letter. “It proves that I am innocent.”
“I’m now reaching an intersection where if justice is done, I will be able to rebuild my life and try to compensate my family for all the lost moments,” he added. “The light is intense — the hope is great — give me freedom.”
It was the first time Vadell, or any of the so-called Citgo 6, had spoken publicly since being arrested and charged with in a purported big corruption scheme. He has been held at a feared Caracas jail called El Helicoide.
The others convicted are Gustavo Cárdenas, Jorge Toledo, brothers Jose Luis Zambrano and Alirio Zambrano, all now U.S. citizens. Jose Pereira, a permanent resident, received the longest sentence.
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.
The men were summoned to the headquarters of PDVSA for what they were told was a budget meeting on Nov. 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.