Venezuela frees dozens, including Americans, in prisoner swap

Venezuela frees dozens, including Americans, in prisoner swap
Venezuela frees dozens, including Americans, in prisoner swap

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Nevin Al Sukari - Sana'a - Alex Saab, who was facing US bribery charges, leaves the Miraflores Palace accompanied by his family and Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, after he was released by the US government in a prisoner swap, in Caracas, Venezuela December 20, 2023. ― Reuters pic

CARACAS, Dec 21 ― Venezuela's government is freeing at least 20 opposition-linked prisoners and 10 Americans in exchange for the US release of an ally of President Nicolas Maduro, two US officials and Venezuelan sources said yesterday.

The Maduro ally is Colombian businessman Alex Saab, who was granted clemency by US President Joe Biden and returned to Venezuela yesterday.

US prosecutors had accused Saab of siphoning off some US$350 million from Venezuela via the United States in a scheme that involved bribing Venezuelan government officials. He denies the charge.

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As part of the deal, all six Americans classified by the US as wrongfully detained in Venezuela were released and are on their way home, along with four other Americans, according to the US officials, who declined to be named.

Venezuela also returned to the United States the fugitive Malaysian businessman Leonard Glenn Francis, known as “Fat Leonard,” who is implicated in a US Navy bribery case, the officials said.

The deal, the result of months of negotiations mediated by Qatar between OPEC member Venezuela and the United States, came after the White House said it would need to see progress on prisoner releases in order to continue with energy sanctions relief for Caracas.

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Sanctions relief was unveiled in October in response to an agreement by the Venezuelan government to hold fair elections in 2024.

Although the releases could be seen as a step by Maduro to comply with US demands, the return of Saab marks a victory for Maduro. Saab had not yet been convicted and his return to Venezuela was previously seen as unlikely.

Washington had given the Venezuelan government until November 30 to make progress on removing public office bans on opposition candidates and start releasing political prisoners and “wrongfully detained” Americans in order to avoid a reinstatement of sanctions.

Venezuela is allowing opposition candidates to appeal their bans, but it had not made much progress on prisoner releases before this week.

Biden told reporters traveling with him in Milwaukee that he had not yet spoken with Maduro but that “we've laid down specific requirements for a democratic election. He's agreed to all of them.”

Headed home

The US citizens classified as wrongly detained and now released include Eyvin Hernandez, Jerrel Kenemore, Joseph Ryan Cristella and Savoi Wright, one US official said.

Hernandez and Kenemore were arrested near Venezuela's border with Colombia in March 2022, while Cristella was arrested in July last year. The three men were accused of trying to enter the country illegally.

“I am grateful that their ordeal is finally over, and that these families are being made whole once more,” Biden said in a written statement. “We are ensuring that the Venezuelan regime meets its commitments.”

The US official declined to name the other US citizens, citing privacy concerns. Others known to be detained in the country included two former US Army Special Forces members, Luke Denman and Airan Berry, who were arrested in 2020 in connection with a botched raid aimed at ousting Maduro.

Gonzalo Himiob, a lawyer at Venezuelan non-governmental group Foro Penal, which regularly provides legal help for political detainees, said yesterday afternoon his group had confirmed 20 people had been freed ― including 15 Venezuelans.

Among them were six education campaigners, who were convicted on conspiracy charges earlier this year and sentenced to 16 years, but who have proclaimed their innocence, and the recently-detained Roberto Abdul, a member of the committee that planned the opposition primary.

Three people involved with the campaign of opposition candidate Maria Corina Machado were expected to have their arrest orders withdrawn, sources have said.

Francis, the fugitive Malaysian, has been accused by US prosecutors of giving Navy officers cash, gourmet food, expensive cigars, rare cognac and hotel sex parties in exchange for contracts.

Francis escaped US house arrest last year ahead of sentencing by cutting off his monitoring anklet. He was detained later in Venezuela, where he faced extradition proceedings.

Saab, who had been held in federal jail in Miami, thanked Maduro and the Venezuelan people on his return to the country yesterday.

“I feel proud to serve the Venezuelan people and to serve this loyal government ... which like me, never surrenders,” Saab said as he made shared remarks with Maduro after reuniting with his family on the airport tarmac.

Maduro said the swap marked a step toward a new era of diplomatic relations with the United States.

Saab had pleaded not guilty and his trial date had not yet been set. ― Reuters

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