WASHINGTON – The Trump administration on Wednesday imposed sanctions on two Venezuelan officials for their role in sending six U.S. oil executives to jail for corruption.
Among those penalized by the United States government were a judge, Lorena Carolina Cornielles Ruiz, and a prosecutor, Ramon Antonio Torres Espinoza, for their involvement in a legal case that resulted in the convictions of six officials from the oil company based in Houston Citgo to jail for eight to 13 years, the Treasury Department said.
US government officials say the leaders – the so-called Citgo 6s – were “unfairly jailed” in Venezuela and subjected to an unfair trial that was criticized by media and human rights groups. for its lack of transparency.
“The unjust detention and conviction of these six American people further demonstrates how deeply entrenched corruption and abuse of power are in Venezuela’s institutions,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in a statement. “The United States remains committed to protecting its citizens and targeting those who contribute to the usurpation of power by the illegitimate Maduro regime in Venezuela.”
As a result of the sanctions, the United States will freeze all property and assets Judge Corniel and Mr. Torres have in the United States, the Treasury Department said, although it is not known whether any of the ‘they do.
Citgo representatives declined to comment.
The actions of the Treasury Department are the latest turning point in a long saga over the arrest of six Citgo employees. The Houston-based company is owned by the state-controlled oil company of Venezuela, PDVSA.
In 2017, six men – Gustavo Cárdenas, Jorge Toledo, Tomeu Vadell, Jose Luis Zambrano, Alirio Jose Zambrano and Jose Angel Pereira – were summoned to a last-minute business meeting in Caracas, the capital of Venezuela, and shortly arrested. after their arrival by armed and masked security guards.
The men were charged with embezzlement linked to a deal that would have refinanced Citgo bonds worth up to $ 4 billion, which the Venezuelan government said lacked the approval of relevant authorities to the administration of President Nicolás Maduro. The proposal was never carried out and all six declared that they were innocent.
Families of the men told U.S. media that they were being held in inhumane conditions and suffered severe weight loss while in detention. Five of the men are Venezuelan Americans from Texas and Louisiana. One is a permanent resident of the United States, according to press reports.
Two of the men – Mr Cárdenas and Mr Toledo – have been released under house arrest in Caracas since July, after former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson and a team of negotiators paid a humanitarian visit to Venezuela on their behalf. .
In August, weekly trials began for the six men. In November, Judge Cornielle handed down a ruling finding the men guilty of corruption. Five were sentenced to eight years and 10 months in prison, while another was sentenced to 13 years.
The efforts of the United States government over the years to secure the release of the men have been unsuccessful. The case is just one of many points of tension between Mr. Maduro and the Trump administration, which recognizes opposition leader Juan Guaidó as the legitimate leader of Venezuela.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement Wednesday that Judge Cornielle and Mr Torres “played a vital role in the kangaroo trials of each of the Citgo executives.” He added that their legal proceedings were “marred by a lack of guarantees of a fair trial and based on politically motivated charges”.
In 2017, Mr. Maduro’s administration said the arrests of the six executives were necessary steps to rid the country’s oil industry of corruption. His administration also arrested the PDVSA chief, a former oil minister and a series of others as part of his purge of the country’s once flourishing oil trade.