Venezuela judge grants appeals to detained US oil execs

The so-called ‘Citgo 6’ have been held since 2017, with the US accusing Caracas of using the group as a bargaining chip.

A Venezuelan judge has granted a rare appeal to six US oil executives accused of embezzlement [File: Eric Gay/AP Photo]

A judge in Venezuela has granted an appeal to six United States oil executives imprisoned in the country for four years on corruption charges.

The judge scheduled a hearing for the men, known as the “Citgo 6”, on Tuesday, according to documents shared with The Associated Press news agency.

They were arrested in 2017 after being lured to Venezuela to attend a meeting at the headquarters of Citgo’s parent company, state-run oil giant PDVSA and accused of embezzlement.

Washington has repeatedly accused Caracas of using the men – five naturalised US citizens and one permanent resident – as bargaining chips to seek policy concessions amid an international pressure campaign launched under former President Donald Trump.

The Trump administration had also imposed sanctions on a judge and prosecutors involved in the case.

The move revealed on Friday represents a rare chance at reprieve for the executives, who were convicted last year in a trial marred by delays and irregularities and sentenced to eight to 13 years in prison.

The men have been granted house arrest twice since their detention.

The first time was in December 2019 and lasted two months. They were detained again on the same day that then-President Trump welcomed Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido to the White House.

An undated photo posted on Twitter on June 18, 2020, by Venezuela’s Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza, shows Citgo oil executives from left to right, Jose Angel Pereira, Gustavo Cardenas, Jorge Toledo, Jose Luis Zambrano, Tomeu Vadell and Alirio Jose Zambrano [File: AP Photo]

They were granted house arrest again last April, but were sent back to prison on October 16 – the same day that a close ally of Maduro, Alex Saab, was extradited by the African nation of Cabo Verde to the US to face money laundering charges.

The extradition also prompted the Maduro government to halt negotiations with the opposition aimed at ending a standoff that has inhibited ending the country’s years-long social and economic crises.

The executives are to appear before a three-judge panel the same week as the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention takes up the case of Tomeu Vadell, one of the six Houston-based Citgo employees arrested in 2017.

The other detained men are Jose Luis Zambrano, Alirio Zambrano, Jorge Toledo, Gustavo Cardenas and Jose Pereira.

Venezuela’s judicial system is stacked with pro-Maduro officials who routinely issue decrees in accordance with the president’s viewpoints.

In March, Reuters news agency, citing court documents, reported that Venezuelan officials had prior knowledge of the proposed deal for Citgo to borrow up to $4bn at the heart of the accusations.

Venezuela’s chief prosecutor Tarek Saab had previously said the six signed the deal “without even communicating or coordinating with the competent authorities”.

Source: News Agencies