Family of jailed oil exec asks for Venezuelan leader's mercy

SCOTT SMITH

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — The family of a Houston-based Citgo oil executive convicted and ordered to prison in Venezuela alongside five others appealed directly to President Nicolás Maduro on Friday for mercy.

In an open letter, relatives of José Pereira, 63, wrote to Maduro that he has a long list of health problems that need medical attention.

They ask for Maduro to free him — and the other five — so they can return home to their families in the United States.

“Our purpose for this letter is not to enter into legal tirades about the case,” the letter says. “We only want to implore to your humanitarian and compassionate side.”

The letter came a day after the Thanksgiving Day verdict finding all six guilty of corruption charges. They've been held for three years in Venezuela.

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 in November 2017 for a business meeting and were arrested.

In addition to Pereira, the others convicted were Gustavo Cárdenas, Jorge Toledo, brothers Jose Luis Zambrano and Alirio Zambrano, and Tomeu Vadell — all now U.S. citizens. The judge sentenced them to 8 years, 10 months.

Jose Pereira, a permanent U.S. resident, had been promoted to interim Citgo president shortly before the arrest. He received the longest sentence of 13 years.

Relatives say the men were wrongly convicted, and the defense lawyers vowed to appeal verdicts.

Venezuela’s Supreme Tribunal of Justice announced the verdicts and prison sentences, but officials in Maduro's government have not commented on the trial’s outcome.

Their arrest launched a corruption purge by 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.

They were also charged with financial crimes 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.

News media and rights groups were denied access to the trial in Caracas. Judge Lorena Cornielles, who oversaw the trial, did not respond to a letter from The Associated Press seeking permission to observe.

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. Days later two of them — Cárdenas and Toledo — were put in house detention and two weeks later the trial began.

Venezuela has been in a yearslong crisis that critics of Maduro blame on failed economic policies and growing authoritarian rule that has led at least 5 million Venezuelans to leave the country.

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.

It is yet to be seen how President-elect Joe Biden will approach Venezuela. Maduro has expressed his desire to improve relations with Washington.

Pereira's family said in the letter that he suffers from at least seven chronic health problems including diabetes and back trouble that requires surgery.

“We ask solemnly and respectfully that you intercede in our case," they asked Maduro. "So we can achieve freedom for these six men and allow them to return home to their loved ones.”

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Scott Smith on Twitter: @ScottSmithAP