Oil executives who received five years in prison in Venezuela are suing former employer Citgo for $400 million

MIAMI– Two top Citgo oil industry executives held in Venezuela for nearly five years have sued their former employer for more than $400 million. They claim the latter conspired to lure them to the South American country under a false pretext and then abandon them as they endured horrific prison conditions for the crimes they committed. not committed.

Brothers Alirio and Jose Luis Zambrano were among six Citgo executives who traveled to Venezuela just before Thanksgiving in 2017 to attend a meeting at the headquarters of the company's parent company, the Venezuelan oil giant known as PDVSA. Once there, they were taken from a meeting room in Caracas by masked security officers.

A Venezuelan judge later sentenced the so-called Citgo 6 to eight to 13 years in prison after a trial marred by delays and irregularities by the US State Department. The charge: involvement in a never-executed debt financing deal that would have put the Houston-based company at risk of being seized by Wall Street creditors.

The lawsuit filed Thursday in a district court in Houston comes as a federal court in Delaware oversees Citgo's auction to settle nearly $21 billion in claims from creditors that have gone unpaid since the U.S. took control of it company from the government of President Nicolas Maduro. .

The Zambranos' complaint alleges that Citgo's top oil officials ordered the men to travel to Venezuela for what they were told was a mandatory meeting, knowing there was a high chance they would be arrested. The bosses of Citgo and PDVSA – all political heavyweights in Maduro's government – ​​are also believed to have provided confidential financial documents to military intelligence officials who facilitated the men's arrest.

“Citgo knowingly and substantially aided and participated in their unlawful arrest,” the lawsuit alleges. “Citgo knew the Zambranos were innocent from 'minute one' of these false accusations – just as Citgo knew in the 2,556,000 minutes that followed.”

After the arrest, Citgo abandoned the families and ignored their pleas for financial assistance so they could defend themselves, the lawsuit alleges.

The situation hardly improved when a Citgo board appointed by the US-backed opposition took control of the company as part of the Trump administration's efforts to oust Maduro and replace the then-president of the National Assembly , Juan Guaido, as the legitimate leader of Venezuela. After numerous outreach efforts by their families, the imprisoned men, at significant personal risk, wrote a handwritten letter from prison asking Citgo's leadership to release documents that could prove their innocence.

“This genuine call for desperation was shockingly ignored,” the 41-page complaint alleges.

A similar lawsuit against Citgo was filed last year by the Zambranos' former colleague and cellmate, Tomeu Vadell.

Citgo did not immediately respond to a request for comment. But company lawyers have pushed for financial sanctions against Vadell and his family for advancing what they call “completely meritless” claims that Citgo deliberately inflicted emotional distress on the men.

“Citgo's inaction, knowing that these men were innocent and falsely accused, speaks volumes,” said Randy Sorrels, attorney for the Zambrano family.

The Zambranos, natives of Venezuela and U.S. citizens, were released in 2022 as part of a prisoner swap for two cousins ​​of Maduro's wife who were jailed in the U.S. on narcotics charges.

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