The six Citgo executives known as the “Citgo 6” are headed to trial.
The Associated Press is reporting Venezuelan Judge Rosvelin Gil accepted a prosecutor’s request that the six men, including Corpus Christi resident Alirio Zambrano, stand trial for corruption and embezzlement.
The men are being accused in connection with a never-executed proposal to refinance about $4 billion in Citgo bonds by offering as collateral a 50-percent stake in the company – which is the property of Venezuela’s state-owned oil company, PDVSA.
Friday’s decision was a painful blow to the families of the men who were initially heartened by the news their loved ones would have the chance to profess their innocence in court. Judge Gil had canceled 15 previous hearings.
“After more than one and a half years of delayed due process, today’s preliminary hearing was a sad spectacle and a travesty of justice,” the family of Tomeu Vadell, Citgo’s vice president of refining, said in a statement.
“Venezuela is depriving an innocent man, a deeply loved husband and father of his freedom,” they added. “We will continue to demand his immediate and unconditional release.”
In a KRIS-6 News exclusive, Alirio Zambrano’s daughters also proclaimed their father’s innocence and that of the other five executives, telling Chief Investigative Reporter Rick Spruill their dad and the other men ” … have seen absolutely nothing that indicates any shred of evidence against them.”
Meanwhile, the families complain the men are being held in inhumane conditions, sharing overcrowded basement cells in a military counterintelligence prison and suffering severe weight loss in a country plagued by food shortages.
Their travail began the weekend before Thanksgiving in 2017, when the six executives got a call from the head of Venezuelan oil giant PDVSA summoning them to Caracas for a last-minute budget meeting.
Once there, armed and masked security agents burst into a conference room and arrested them. Venezuela’s embattled President, Nicholas Maduro, publicly accused them of “treason,” though they have not been charged that particular crime.
The case has largely slipped from view as Venezuela has descended further into turmoil and relations between the U.S. and Venezuela have been torn apart by the Trump administration’s strong backing for opposition leader Juan Guaidó in his battle to oust Maduro.
Vadell hasn’t been able to speak to his family since March after guards inexplicably tightened restrictions at the prison where some of Maduro’s biggest political opponents are being held.
Meanwhile, their employer, Citgo, has emerged as a major prize in the battle for power. Guaidó in February named a new board to manage Citgo, the eighth-largest refiner in the U.S. and which until the takeover had been a subsidiary of Venezuelan oil giant PDVSA.
But despite the change in leadership at Citgo families of the jailed men complain they are still being left to fend for themselves, with scant support from the company, Guaidó or the U.S. government.