By SCOTT SMITH Associated Press
CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Venezuela has released a video for the first time showing six American oil executives jailed in Caracas as relatives appealed for international help in securing their release over fears about the men’s health amid the coronavirus pandemic.
The men have been jailed for over two years since officials under Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro asked them to travel from the Houston-based CITGO headquarters for a meeting, when they were arrested.
“Seeing these images has made me sick to my stomach,” said Gabriela Zambrano, daughter of detained Alirio Zambrano. “It hurts beyond belief to know the regime is continuing to use him as a human puppet.”
Foreign Affairs Minister Jorge Arreaza posted a 30-second video of the men and photographs on his Twitter feed late Wednesday. Venezuelan law guarantees the right to health and preventive measures against COVID-19 and any other disease, Arreaza said.
The men dressed in orange jail garb stand before the camera, all wearing white face masks, except for José Pereira, who makes a statement, saying they are well cared for by jailers.
“Given limitations, our conditions here have been good,” Pereira said in the video posted late Wednesday. “They treat us with respect regarding our human rights.”
Released photographs show the men standing on the steps in front of the headquarters of SEBIN, Venezuela’s intelligence police. In one picture, a man talks on a phone, while other images show men playing ping pong and lifting weights.
The Associated Press could not independently confirm the men’s conditions.
The men — Tomeu Vadell, José Luis Zambrano, Alirio Zambrano, Jorge Toledo, Gustavo Cardenas and José Pereira — worked as executives at Houston-based CITGO. Just before Thanksgiving in 2017, they were lured to Caracas for a meeting at the headquarters of CITGO’s parent, state-run oil giant PDVSA, when masked security agents swarmed a boardroom and hauled them away.
The men are held at the Helicoide jail in Caracas awaiting trial on corruption charges stemming from a never executed plan to refinance some $4 billion in CITGO bonds by offering a 50% stake in the company as collateral.
But many believe the men, five of whom are naturalized U.S. citizens and the other a legal resident, are being held as political bargaining chips as relations between the U.S. and Venezuela have deteriorated. Prosecutors accuse the men of maneuvering to benefit from the proposed deal.
Cristina Vadell, said her 60-year-old father Tomeu Vadell, is the oldest among the six men. He has serious underlying conditions that put him at risk if he were to contract the coronavirus, she said, adding that all six men have issues that put them at risk.
Cristina Vadell said she only wishes that her father’s human rights be respected. Her family is urging U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet to intervene to win his release — “before it’s too late.”
“This arbitrary detention of 2.5 years without trial must end now,” Vadell said.
Vadell said her father and the others are held together in a small cell without windows or air conditioning or ventilation, which means that if any of the men sick, they could all get sick.