By Luc Cohen
CARACAS (Reuters) -Venezuela has released from jail six former executives of U.S.-based refining company Citgo and put them on house arrest, a source familiar with the situation said on Friday, more than three years after they were arrested on corruption charges.
The officials were detained in November 2017 after being called into a meeting at the Caracas office of state oil company PDVSA, which owns Citgo.
The detention of the former executives, who include five naturalized U.S. citizens and one permanent resident, has been a major sticking point in tense relations between Caracas and Washington, which has repeatedly called for the men’s release and called their detention unlawful.
The United States labels Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro a dictator, and the former Trump administration imposed crippling sanctions on the OPEC nation’s oil sector to try to force his ouster. The release of the six men comes as Maduro seeks to improve ties with U.S. President Joe Biden’s new administration.
The U.S. State Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment and a Reuters question on whether the U.S. government played any role in negotiating the change in the executives’ status.
The Biden administration has shown no sign of easing sanctions on Venezuela, despite the failure of former President Donald Trump’s harsh measures to dislodge Maduro.
Biden’s aides have said the “maximum pressure” sanctions campaigns that Trump levied against Venezuela as well as Iran have not achieved their policy objectives. But a senior White House official told Reuters recently that Biden was in no rush to lift Venezuela sanctions.
‘SLEEP IN A BETTERPLACE’
A Venezuelan court in November sentenced the six former executives, who were accused of crimes including embezzlement, money laundering and conspiracy, to prison terms ranging from eight to 13 years.
The executives – Jose Pereira, Jose Luis Zambrano, Alirio Jose Zambrano, Jorge Toledo, Tomeu Vadell and Gustavo Cardenas – all denied the charges.
Neither Venezuela’s Information Ministry nor its chief prosecutor’s office immediately replied to a request for comment.
“I’m happy my brothers will sleep in a better place tonight, but the job is not finished until they are back home in the USA,” Alirio Rafael Zambrano, the brother of Jose Luis Zambrano and Alirio Jose Zambrano, wrote on Twitter.
The men had been granted house arrest in December 2019, but were moved back to prison at the Helicoide – as the headquarters of the Venezuelan intelligence agency Sebin is known – just months later, in February 2020, hours after President Donald Trump met with Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido.
The United States recognizes Guaido as Venezuela’s rightful leader, accusing Maduro of rigging his 2018 re-election and using the justice system to stifle dissent. Maduro says Washington wants to control Venezuela’s oil reserves and aims to oust him in a coup.
“This is a positive and important step that should help secure their wellbeing during the COVID-19 outbreak in Venezuela,” said veteran U.S. diplomat Bill Richardson, who has traveled to Caracas to help negotiate the men’s release.
(Reporting by Luc Cohen in Caracas; additional reporting by Matt Spetalnick in Washington; writing by Brian Ellsworth; Editing by Leslie Adler and Richard Pullin)