Venezuela releases 7 imprisoned Americans in prisoner swap

WASHINGTON — Venezuela on Saturday released seven Americans imprisoned in the South American country in exchange for the release of two cousins ​​of President Nicholas Maduro’s wife, who had spent years in prison by the United States for drug smuggling, a senior official said. American official.

The exchange of Americans, including five oil executives detained for nearly five years, is the largest trade of detained civilians ever carried out by the Biden administration.

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 on June 18, 2020.

“We are relieved and excited to welcome seven Americans who have been unfairly detained too long in Venezuela today,” said Joshua Geltzer, deputy homeland security adviser.

It amounts to a rare gesture of goodwill from Maduro, as the socialist leader aims to restore relations with the US after defeating most of his domestic opponents. The deal follows months of diplomacy by Washington’s top negotiator and other US officials — secret talks with a major oil producer that became more urgent after sanctions against Russia put pressure on global energy prices.

Among the freed are five employees of Houston-based Citgo — Tomeu Vadell, Jose Luis Zambrano, Alirio Zambrano, Jorge Toledo and Jose Pereira — who were lured to Venezuela just before Thanksgiving in 2017 to attend a meeting at its headquarters. of the company’s parent company, state-run oil giant PDVSA. Once there, they were dragged away by masked security agents who broke into a conference room in Caracas.

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Also released were Matthew Heath, a former United States Marine Corporal from Tennessee who was arrested in 2020 at a roadblock in Venezuela on what the State Department has called “criminal” gun charges, and a Florida man Osman Khan, who was arrested in January was arrested.

Defendants Efrain Campo, center-left, and Francisco Flores, center-right, cousins ​​of Venezuela's first lady Cilia Flores, listen to proceedings during their sentencing hearing in New York federal court in 2017.

The United States has released Franqui Flores and his cousin Efrain Campo, the cousins ​​of ‘First Combatant’ Cilia Flores, as Maduro has called his wife. The men were arrested in Haiti in 2015 in a Drug Enforcement Administration case and immediately taken to New York to face charges. They were convicted the following year in a highly charged case that scrutinized US drug trafficking allegations at the highest levels of Maduro’s administration.

Both men were pardoned by President Joe Biden before his release.

The Biden administration is under pressure to do more to bring home the roughly 60 Americans it says are being held hostage abroad or wrongly held by hostile foreign governments. While much of the focus is on Russia, where the US has so far tried unsuccessfully to secure the release of WNBA star Brittney Griner and another American, Paul Whelan, Venezuela is holding the largest contingent of Americans suspected of acting as negotiating chips. are used.

At least four other Americans are still detained in Venezuela, including two former Green Berets involved in a limp attempt to oust Maduro in 2019, and two other men who, like Khan, were detained for allegedly entering the country illegally. had arrived from neighboring Colombia.

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro

The Biden administration has not released another prisoner Maduro has long been seeking: Alex Saab, an insider businessman who views Venezuela as a diplomat, and US prosecutors as a corrupt regime activator. Saab fought extradition from Cape Verde, where he was arrested last year during a stopover on his way to Iran, and is now awaiting trial in Miami federal court on charges of siphoning millions in state contracts.

The oil executives were convicted last year for embezzlement in a trial marred by delays and irregularities. They were sentenced to between eight and 13 years in prison for a never-executed proposal to refinance billions in the oil company’s bonds. Maduro charged them with “treason” at the time, and Venezuela’s Supreme Court confirmed their lengthy sentences earlier this year. The men have all pleaded innocence, and the State Department considers them — and the two other Americans released on Saturday — wrongly detained.

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