Venezuela judge orders prison time for American oil executives

Brother of two of the convicted says they are victims of 'judicial terrorism'

A Venezuelan judge found six American oil executives, who have been held in the country for three years, guilty on corruption charges Thursday night – confirming the disheartening news that blocked any hope of a quick release back to their families in the United States.

“We, the family, are heartbroken to be separated even further from our loved ones,” Alirio Rafael Zambrano, brother of two of Americans found guilty, said. “We pray that the leaders of our nation step forward and continue to fight unceasingly for their freedom and human rights.”

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Zambrano received the news the evening of Thanksgiving and said they were “undeniably innocent” and victims of “judicial terrorism.” He firmly believes there is no evidence, which supports their guilty conviction.

The six Americans were deemed the Citgo Six due to their employment by the Houston-based Citgo oil company, after they were lured to Venezuela for an alleged business meeting before being arrested on corruption charges.

Citgo is owned by Venezuela’s state oil company, PDVSA.

Five of the men arrested were sentenced to eight years and 10 months, though their Defense Attorney Jesus Loreto said they may be able to be released on parole after a couple of years.

But he did not say when the other man, who was sentenced to 13 years, may be able to seek parole.

One of the men arrested, Tomeu Vadell, sent a letter to the Associated Press before his sentencing, and said in the trial, "the truth has proven undeniable." “It proves that I am innocent," he wrote in the four-page hand-written letter from a Caracas jail.

“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’s letter was the first time any of the prisoners have spoken publicly since being arrested.

Gustavo Cárdenas, Jorge Toledo, brothers Jose Luis Zambrano and Alirio Zambrano -- all American citizens along with Vadell --received nearly nine year-long sentences. But Jose Pereira, a permanent resident, received the longest sentence.

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All men are being held at the notorious El Helicoide prison in Caracus.

Defense Attorney María Alejandra Poleo, who represents three of the men, said that the case was “void of evidence.” “Of course, the defense will appeal the decision,” she added.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.