Four Fort Bend County families had to spend another Christmas without loved ones who remain imprisoned in Venezuela.
The U.S. government gave those families a belated holiday gift Wednesday, granting their wish for meaningful action that might help their husbands, fathers, brothers and uncles finally return home.
The U.S. Department of the Treasury announced that its Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) had placed sanctions on a Venezuelan judge and prosecutor who played a role in the Thanksgiving Day conviction of six executives for Houston-based Citgo who were called to a meeting in Venezuela in November 2017 and arrested by the regime of Nicolas Maduro. Citgo is a subsidiary of PDVSA, an oil and gas company controlled by the Venezuelan government.
The “Citgo 6” as they are known were found guilty last month on corruption charges, but U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has referred to their trials as a “kangaroo court” at least in part because media and human rights groups were denied access to them. Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin called their ongoing detention “unjust.”
Five of the convicted executives are dual citizens, including Sugar Land resident Jorge Toledo and Katy residents Gustavo Cardenas and Jose Luis Zambrano. Katy resident Jose Pereira is a legal U.S. resident. The other imprisoned men are Tomeu Vadell and Zambrano’s brother, Alirio, who also has family in the Houston area.
“It feels like a little bit of justice happening here at the end of the year,” said Toledo’s stepson, Carlos Anez, who lives in Richmond. “It feels like they’re trying to send a message that being given an order to convict innocent people is not going to be an excuse anymore.”
The sanctions apply to Venezuelan judge Lorena Carolina Corneilles Ruiz, who found the men guilty and sentenced them to between eight and 13 years in prison, and Ramon Antonio Torres Espinoza, who prosecuted the case for the Venezuelan government.
They are essentially blacklisted by the U.S. as a result of the sanctions, meaning any property or assets they may have in the U.S. or with U.S. companies are blocked or frozen.
“All property and interests in property of the persons designated that are in the United States or in the possession or control of U.S. persons are blocked and must be reported to OFAC,” the treasury department said in a Wednesday news release. “In addition, any entities that are owned, directly or indirectly, 50 percent or more by the designated persons also are blocked. OFAC’s regulations generally prohibit all dealings by U.S. persons or those within (or transiting) the United States that involve any property or interests in property of blocked or designated persons.”
If nothing else, Anez said he hopes the sanctions will impact the behavior of Venezuelan officials who will be involved in the appeals process. He said Toledo already has appealed his conviction within Venezuela’s court system.
Anez also said the U.S. action appears to be a step toward securing the release of his stepfather and the other men. He thanked the administration of President Donald Trump for the work it has done on behalf of the impacted American families and said he was told by the state department that the administration for President-elect Joe Biden has been briefed on the situation and “is eager to get on it and try to put an end to it.”
“These six men and their families have suffered long enough,” Pompeo said in a statement released Wednesday. “It is time for Maduro to release the Citgo 6 and let them be reunited with their families.”