A Venezuelan judge sentenced six American oil executives to jail on Thursday after they were found guilty of corruption charges.
The six Citgo executives were sentenced to more than eight years in prison each after being asked to travel to Venezuela for a business meeting three years ago, according to The Associated Press.
Tomeu Vadell, Gustavo Cárdenas, Jorge Toledo, Jose Luis Zambrano, Alirio Zambrano and Jose Pereira are all accused of embezzlement relating to a plan to refinance $4 billion in Citgo bonds that was never carried out.
All the men are currently American citizens except for Pereira who is a permanent resident of the U.S.
The Houston-based refining company is owned by Venezuela’s state oil company, PDVSA.
According to the wire service, the so-called Citgo 6 were summoned to Caracas for a budget meeting in November 2017. While they were shuttled to the country’s capital, they were told that they were going to be home by Thanksgiving.
Instead, military officers met them at the boardroom and put them in jail, according to the AP. The trial began four months ago, and closing arguments were heard on Thanksgiving this year.
Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro has accused the executives of “treason,” but each of the executives has pleaded their innocence, according to the news outlet.
After the men were arrested, Maduro began a thorough purge of Venezuela’s oil industry, which is based on the largest crude oil reserves in the world. The AP reports the head of PDVSA and former oil minister were arrested, along with several others.
Media and rights groups have not been allowed access to the trial and the process was largely stalled due to the pandemic.
Venezuela’s chief prosecutor told the AP in a statement, “The Citgo case has developed normally during all the stages established by the Venezuelan criminal process.”
Jesus Loreto, attorney for Vadell, said his client has been entangled in a geopolitical conflict that he has no part in and claims Vadell’s name does not show up anywhere in the court documents presented as evidence.
Former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson (D) met with Maduro in July to try to negotiate the release of the Citgo executives. Richardson has negotiated the release of American prisoners overseas in the past.
“I think the Venezuelans have been straight with me, but more progress needs to be made,” said Richardson. “My hope is to have something positive by Christmas.”
Richardson reportedly believes that Maduro will be more open to a Biden administration in the hopes of a more favorable position with Washington.
President TrumpDonald John TrumpVenezuela judge orders prison time for 6 American oil executives Trump says he’ll leave White House if Biden declared winner of Electoral College The Memo: Biden faces tough road on pledge to heal nation MORE, along with many other world leaders, has recognized opposition leader Juan Guaidó as the legitimate leader of Venezuela after a highly disputed election in 2018 that resulted in Maduro being reelected.