Six American oil executives held in an overcrowded Venezuelan prison for 18 months finally got their day in court Friday only to see their hopes of being released dashed.
Judge Rosvelin Gil, during a preliminary hearing, accepted prosecutor Aramay Terán's request that the six employees of Houston-based Citgo stand for trial on corruption charges. No date for the trial to begin was set.
The decision was a painful blow to the families of the men who were initially heartened by news their loved ones would have the chance to profess their innocence in court after judge Gil had canceled 15 previous hearings giving little reason.
"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."
The families of the "Citgo 6" — five of them, like Vadell, American citizens and all with deep roots in Texas and Louisiana — 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 on embezzlement charges stemming from a never-executed proposal to refinance some $4 billion in Citgo bonds by offering a 50 percent stake in the company as collateral. Maduro himself accused them of "treason," though they have not been charged with that 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 eight 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.