A Venezuelan court has found six American oil executives, known as the Citgo 6, guilty of a wide-ranging corruption scheme, immediately sentencing them to prison on Thursday.

The men all worked for Citgo, a US refining company owned by Venezuela’s state oil firm PDVSA. They were arrested in the capital Caracas three years ago after arriving there for a business meeting.

Venezuela’s Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza, shows CITGO oil executives Jose Angel Pereira, from left to right, Gustavo Cardenas, Jorge Toledo, Jose Luis Zambrano, Tomeu Vadell and Alirio Jose Zambrano.

©  Venezuela’s Foreign Ministry via AP / Jorge Arreaza

Citgo’s former president, Jose Angel Pereira, was sentenced to over 13 years in prison and given a $2 million fine. The others (all vice-presidents of the company at the time) – Gustavo Cárdenas, Jorge Toledo, Tomeu Vadell, Jose Luis Zambrano, and Alirio Jose Zambrano – received sentences of between eight and 10 years. They could be released on parole in a couple of years, defense lawyer Jesus Loreto said.

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Five of those arrested are Venezuelan-Americans with roots in Texas and Louisiana, and one is a permanent US resident, according to media reports.

According to the Human Rights Watch, the group was accused of signing a deal that was “unfavorable” for Venezuela’s state oil firm. The men have denied any wrongdoing.

Alirio Rafael Zambrano, whose two brothers are among the defendants, said that they were “undeniably innocent” and victims of “judicial terrorism.” No evidence presented in the case supports a guilty conviction, he said, as quoted by the New York Times.

One of the lawyers, Maria Alejandra Poleo, said the case was “void of evidence,” adding: “Of course the defense will appeal the decision.”

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Last week, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that Washington will continue to do the “utmost” to bring the men home. “The US government has repeatedly called for the unconditional release of the Citgo 6 and their return to the United States. These six Americans and their families have suffered long enough; it is time for [President] Maduro to put politics aside and let these families be reunited,” said Pompeo.

In 2019, Washington introduced sanctions against Venezuelan state oil firm PDVSA (which accounts for about 95 percent of the country’s export earnings) after recognizing opposition leader Juan Guaido as interim president.

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