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DETENTION NOW IN ITS THIRD YEAR
by Sharon Rondeau
(Feb. 7, 2020) — On Thursday, the U.S. State Department confirmed news reports stating that the “Citgo 6,” six former Citgo executives taken prisoner in Caracas in November 2017, were returned to prison Wednesday after spending approximately two months on house arrest.
Five of the six are U.S. citizens and one a permanent U.S. resident. All were working at the Houston headquarters of Citgo, which is wholly-owned by the Venezuelan government under the name PDVSA, when they were arrested on “corruption” charges while attending what was characterized as a business meeting in Caracas.
Gustavo Cardenas, Jose Pereira, Jorge Toledo, Tomeu Vadell, Jose Luis Zambrano and Alirio Zambrano were accused of “signing off on a deal to refinance Citgo’s debt with terms unfavorable to Venezuela, and offering Citgo as collateral,” NBC reported Friday.
The men’s health and well-being have been a major source of concern for relatives and attorneys representing them, NBC wrote.
A Thursday afternoon press briefing began with an introduction by State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus, after which Special Representative for Venezuela Elliott Abrams said, “To begin with, the safety and health of Americans is always a top concern for the Department of State. We’ve learned that the Citgo 6 have been taken from house arrest by the regime’s intelligence agency, SEBIN, and we believe they are now detained at its Helicoide prison.”
At a similar December presser, Abrams had announced improved conditions for the six in the form of house arrest as opposed to incarceration in a prison.
The prison to which Abrams referred on Thursday, “El Helicoide” in Caracas, is reported to be the headquarters for SEBIN, Venezuela’s notorious intelligence bureau, and a facility used to house political prisoners. Originally intended as a futuristic shopping mall when construction began in the 1950s, the structure is now believed to mete out “torture.”
According to CNN on Friday, the deterioration in the men’s situation took place “just hours after Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido met with US President Donald Trump.” Guaido, who the U.S. recognizes as the official leader of Venezuela, was one of Trump’s guests at the State of the Union address on Tuesday.
During the meeting, CNN reported, citing an administration source, Trump told Guaido he plans to take “additional action” against the Nicolas Maduro regime. A protégé of the late dictator Hugo Chavez, Maduro came to power in his own right in 2013 and instituted oppressive policies which led to widespread protests amid deepening economic strife.
After a disputed 2018 election, Maduro claimed victory, but in January last year, Guaido also declared himself interim president of Venezuela.
On Wednesday, Guaido and Trump met at the White House. The “additional action” Trump will take against the Maduro regime may include increased sanctions on countries conducting business with it, CNN’s source said. Despite considerable support from the U.S. and other Western nations for Guaido, Maduro continues to wield significant political and military power.
When a reporter asked Abrams if the Citgo 6’s return to prison “is at all like a retaliation for the State of the Union, the White House meeting, the kind of reception that he’s been getting,” Abrams responded, “I would not speculate on that. I don’t know.”
Later in the presser, Abrams said the administration does not view Maduro as “entrenched” in Venezuela, with Guaido losing momentum to establish a government. “There is report after report of privatization of PDVSA or parts of PDVSA, of turning over joint ventures to the foreign oil company partner,” Abrams said.
PDVSA has been the object of sanctions by the Trump administration for more than a year.
In response to the newest development in the prisoners’ ordeal, Abrams remarked, “So we take this very seriously. And we’ve taken – we’ve made a number of efforts today that, for obvious reasons, I’m not going to talk about to find out more about what’s going on and to get them released from prison.”
While under house arrest, Abrams said, the men were “not in one place” and “were under constant surveillance. There were varying numbers of spies, of intelligence agents, constantly around the – their houses. It would not be unreasonable to assume that they’re being bugged, that they’re being eavesdropped on. So it’s a quite stressful situation in addition to being kept from their families by not being allowed to leave Venezuela.”
“We condemn this cruel and indefensible action and demand that their long, unjust detention come to an end and they be allowed to leave Venezuela,” Abrams said. “We urge the regime to release unconditionally all persons who are being detained for political reasons, including National Assembly deputies Juan Requesens – he’s been held for 548 days, Gilber Caro, and Ismael Leon.”
Since January 5, 2019, Guaido has claimed to be president of Venezuela’s National Assembly, or legislature, although disputed by Luis Parra. Requesens is reportedly imprisoned at El Helicoide, a development receiving wide condemnation from the international community. Caro and Leon.
On December 20, Caro was taken prisoner by the Maduro regime for the third time for political reasons. Venezuela’s National Assembly website states that the “disappearance” of “Deputy León is a clear violation of Article 200 of the Constitution of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, which proclaims parliamentary immunity in the exercise of the functions of each of the legislators.”