CARACAS, Venezuela - Six American oil executives held for three years in Venezuela were found guilty of corruption charges by a judge Thursday and immediately sentenced to prison, dashing hopes of a quick release that would send them home to their families in the United States.
Some relatives had been bracing for the disheartening outcome, which came on the evening of Thanksgiving Day.
Alirio Rafael Zambrano, brother to two of the men, said they were “undeniably innocent” and victims of “judicial terrorism.” No evidence 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 in a phone message 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, has said in a letter written in a Caracas jail and provided exclusively to The Associated Press before the verdict that he had hopes for a fair trial so he could walk free with his name cleared and go home to his family in the United States.
Despite his circumstances, Vadell held out hope.
“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.”
Vadell said it was especially painful to be separated during the Thanksgiving season from his wife, three adult children and a newborn grandson he has never held.
“Before living this tragedy, these celebrations were very special times for our family,” Vadell wrote, saying he embraced the traditional American holiday after moving in 1999 from Caracas to Lake Charles, Louisiana, for a job with Citgo. “Now, they bring me a lot of sadness.”
It’s 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.
Their trial started four months ago and closing arguments took place Thursday. The judge immediately announced her verdict.
The proceeding played out one day a week in a downtown Caracas court. Due to the pandemic, sessions were held in front of a bank of dormant elevators in a hallway, apparently to take advantage of air flowing through open windows.
News media and rights groups were denied access to the hearings. There was no response to a letter addressed to Judge Lorena Cornielles seeking permission for The Associated Press to observe.
The office of Venezuela’s chief prosecutor said prior to the verdict in a statement to AP that investigators found “serious evidence” that corroborated financial crimes potentially damaging to the state-run company.
“The Citgo case has developed normally during all the stages established by the Venezuelan criminal process,” the statement said.
Loreto said his client appeared to have been caught up in a “geopolitical conflict” of which he was not a part. He said Vadell’s name never appeared on any of the documents prosecutors read into evidence.
“There’s nothing that refers to Tomeu in any way -- directly or indirectly,” the lawyer said. “This is the story of a good guy being held against his will for all the wrong reasons.”
Former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who has negotiated the release of other Americans held by hostile governments, traveled to Caracas in July and met with Maduro.
He didn’t win their freedom, but days later two of them — Cárdenas and Toledo — were freed from jail and put in house detention. Two weeks later, the long-delayed trial began.
Richardson told AP that conversations with the Venezuelan government continue despite his meeting with Maduro being “a little stormy.” He said he he believes there is an opening tied to President-elect Joe Biden and a desire by Maduro to improve relations with Washington.
“I think the Venezuelans have been straight with me, but more progress needs to be made,” Richardson said before the verdict. “My hope is to have something positive by Christmas.”
It is not clear what approach Biden will take toward Maduro. Trump aggressively pressed to remove Maduro through sweeping financial sanctions and the U.S. Justice Department has indicted Maduro as a “narcoterrorist,” offering a $15 million reward for his arrest.
Vadell’s letter steered clear of politics. He didn’t mention Maduro or speak about his jailers, though he did express concern about the “consequences of repercussions” of speaking out.
With encouragement from his family, Vadell broke his silence, taking a risk relatives said was necessary.
“I believe it’s more important that the light of hope illuminates us,” Vadell wrote. “May the light of hope put an end to the sadness of my family.”
The five other men did not respond to invitations AP made through their lawyers to comment.
Vadell’s daughter, Cristina Vadell, said in a phone interview from Lake Charles that her father isn’t the kind of person who seeks attention. Rather, he prefers to focus on work and his family.
During his 35-year career with PDVSA and Citgo, Vadell ended up running a refinery in Lake Charles and then became vice president of refining. The letter attempts to expose this side of his life, she said.
“I think he was willing to take some risks and open some hearts to allow him to come home,” she said. “I think he’s still wondering ‘What happened?’ He went to a work meeting and never came home.”
Representative Pete Olson (TX-22) issued the following statement: "“I am devastated to learn of the sentencing of the CITGO 6 after waiting 1,102 days for a sham trial completely behind closed doors with no proof of guilt. Dictator Maduro was voted out of power in May 2018. He must respect the will of the Venezuelan people and resign immediately. I will continue working with the CITGO 6 families and our State Department for true justice and their immediate release. These men deserve to come home ahora!”
Associated Press writer Joshua Goodman in Miami contributed to this report.