Venezuela releases 7 detained Americans; US frees 2 prisoners


Venezuela on Saturday released seven Americans jailed in the South American country in exchange for the release of two nephews of President Nicholas Maduro’s wife, who were jailed for years by the United States on drug smuggling charges, a senior US official said.

The American swap, including five oil executives, lasted almost five years largest trade in imprisoned citizens ever conducted by the Biden administration.

It’s a rare gesture of goodwill from Maduro as the socialist leader seeks to rebuild ties with the US after defeating most of his domestic opponents. The deal follows Months of backchannel diplomacy by Washington’s top hostage negotiator and other US officials – secret talks with a major oil producer that gained urgency after sanctions on Russia put pressure on global energy prices.

Those released include five Houston-based Citgo employees — 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 the mother-state headquarters to attend the company’s run-oil giant PDVSA. Once there, they were dragged away by masked security officers who burst into a conference room in Caracas.

The men were convicted of embezzlement in a 2020 trial riddled with delays and irregularities and were sentenced to between eight and 13 years in prison for an unfulfilled proposal to refinance billions of dollars in the oil company’s bonds.

“I can’t believe it,” Cristina Vadell, Tomeu Vadell’s daughter, told The Associated Press on Saturday.

On her 31st birthday, she held back tears of joy, saying, “This is the best birthday present ever. I’m just so happy.”

Also was released Matthew Heidea former US Marine corporal from Tennessee who was arrested at a roadblock in Venezuela in 2020 on alleged “apparent” gun charges; and Osman Khan, a Florida man who was arrested in January.

The transfer took place on Saturday in the Caribbean island of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, which is ruled by a Maduro ally, three people in Venezuela who have been briefed on the matter told the AP on condition of anonymity. The prisoners arrived from their respective locations on separate planes, the Biden administration said.

“These individuals will soon be reunited with their families and back in the arms of loved ones where they belong,” President Biden said in a statement.

To facilitate a deal, Biden granted clemency to Franqui Flores and his cousin Efrain Campo, nephews of “First Combatant” Cilia Flores, as Maduro calls his wife. The men were arrested in Haiti in a 2015 Drug Enforcement Administration stabbing and convicted the following year in New York in a highly charged case that scrutinized US drug trafficking allegations at the highest level of the Maduro administration.

Both men were granted clemency by Mr. Biden before being released.

Describing the men only as “unjustly detained” Venezuelans, the Maduro government said in a statement that it “welcomes the outcome of these talks and hopes for the preservation of peace and harmony with all nations of our region and the world.” “

The Biden administration has been under pressure to do more to bring home the 60 or so Americans it believes are being held hostage abroad or wrongfully arrested by hostile foreign governments. While much of the focus is on Russia, where the US has so far unsuccessfully sought the release of WNBA star Brittney Griner and another American, Paul Whelan, Venezuela holds the largest contingent of Americans suspected as bargaining chips to be abused.

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

Earlier this month, the family of Los Angeles attorney Eyvin Hernandez said CBS News that the 44-year-old made a trip to Colombia in April and never returned. They said he and a friend went to the Colombia-Venezuelan border to get a passport stamped, but things went wrong and the two were arrested.

The two have been charged with conspiracy and association to commit crimes against the state, and Hernandez’s brother told CBS News he has had little contact with his family since his incarceration.

The Biden administration has not released another prisoner Maduro has long wanted: Alex Saab, an insider businessman whom Venezuela diplomats and US prosecutors consider a corrupt regime enabler. Saab fought extradition from Cape Verde, where he was arrested last year during a stopover en route to Iran, and is now awaiting trial in a federal court in Miami on charges of siphoning off millions of state contracts.

The oil executives were found guilty of embezzlement last year in a trial marred by delays and irregularities. They were sentenced to between eight and 13 years in prison for an unsuccessful proposal to refinance billions of dollars in the oil company’s bonds. Maduro then accused them of “treason,” and Venezuela’s Supreme Court upheld their lengthy sentences earlier this year.

The men have all pleaded not guilty and the State Department considers them – and the two other Americans released on Saturday – to be wrongfully imprisoned.

earlier this year, two American citizens who were unjustly detained in the US’s view, were released from a Venezuelan prison. Gustavo Cardenas, one of the imprisoned Citgo executives, and tourist Jorge Fernandez returned to the United States in early March.

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