Six American oil executives held for three years in Venezuela have been found guilty of corruption charges by a judge and immediately sentenced to prison.
The moved dashed of a quick release that would send them home to their families in the United States.
The so-called Citgo 6 are employees of Houston-based Citgo refining company, which is owned by Venezuela’s state oil company PDVSA.
They had been lured to Venezuela three years ago for a business meeting and were arrested on corruption charges.
Their arrest launched a purge by president Nicolas Maduro’s government of PDVSA and at a time when relations between Caracas and Washington were crumbling as Venezuela plummeted into economic and social crisis.
Five of the men were sentenced to prison terms of 8 years and 10 months, while one of them received a 13-year sentence.
Defence lawyer Jesus Loreto said the five with lesser terms could be released on parole in a couple of years.
Alirio Rafael Zambrano, brother to two of the men, said they were “undeniably innocent” and victims of “judicial terrorism”, adding no evidence in the case supports a guilty conviction.
“We, the family, are heartbroken to be separated even further from our loved ones,” he said.
“We pray that the leaders of our nation step forward and continue to fight unceasingly for their freedom and human rights.”
Lawyer Maria Alejandra Poleo, who helped represent three of the men, said the case was “void of evidence” and said the defence will appeal against the decision.
Tomeu Vadell, Gustavo Cardenas, Jorge Toledo, and brothers Jose Luis Zambrano and Alirio Zambrano, all US citizens, were sentenced alongside Jose Pereira, a permanent resident, who received the longest sentence.
The men were summoned to the headquarters of PDVSA for what they were told was a budget meeting on November 21, 2017.
A corporate jet shuttled them to Caracas and they were told they would be home for Thanksgiving but military intelligence officers swarmed into the boardroom and took them to jail.
Prior to the verdict, the office of Venezuela’s chief prosecutor said that investigators found “serious evidence” that corroborated financial crimes potentially damaging to the state-run company.