By Vasco Cotovio and Stefano Pozzebon, CNN
Five United States citizens and a permanent resident who were serving house arrest in Caracas, Venezuela, were picked up by the country’s intelligence service SEBIN on Saturday, just hours after the extradition of Alex Saab, a Colombian financier close to embattled Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, the families of two of the detainees and one of their lawyers told CNN.
Saab, a Colombian businessman close to Maduro, was extradited to the US from Cape Verde earlier Saturday. Saab was detained in the African nation in June 2020 following an Interpol red notice due to his indictment in the US.
He faces charges of money laundering in Florida related to his activity as a government contractor in Venezuela. He also faces money laundering and fraud charges in his native Colombia.
His extradition, which followed a lengthy court battle in Cape Verde, was confirmed to CNN by Saab’s legal defense team on Saturday.
The extradition means Saab is now one of Maduro’s closest confidants to be available for interrogation by US officials. If he was to cooperate, he could significantly advance the Department of Justice case against Maduro, who is facing charges for narco-terrorism and drug trafficking in New York.
The detention of the six men in Venezuela, known collectively as the “CITGO 6,” is an apparent retaliation for Saab’s extradition. The group consists of former executives of CITGO Petroleum Corporation who were arrested in 2017 in Caracas on embezzlement charges and had been under house arrest since May. They deny the charges.
On Sunday, lawyers Jesús Loretto and María Alejandra Poleo, who have been campaigning for their release, told CNN the men are being held at the Helicoide prison in Caracas. The group consists of José Ángel Pereira, Gustavo Cárdenas, Jorge Toledo, José Luis Zambrano, Tomeu Vadell and Alirio José Zambrano.
The prison has been the focus of a public health scandal in the past few days after the NGO Coalition for Human Rights and Democracy said 20 inmates have tested positive for Covid-19.
Earlier in the week, the Venezuelan General Raúl Isaias Baduel, who had been under arrest since 2017 at the Helicoide prison, passed away from Covid-19, the Venezuelan Attorney General, Tarek William Saab, wrote on Twitter.
Many of the CITGO 6 have seen their health deteriorate in the past four years as a result of their imprisonment, and their families and lawyers have expressed concern to CNN over the risks of them contracting Covid-19.
“We have received reports that the Maduro regime has ended the house arrest of the six wrongfully detained Americans in Venezuela and moved them back to prison,” the US State Department said in a statement Sunday. “These six Americans and their families have suffered long enough. The United States continues to call for their immediate release and return to the United States.”
The family of one of the CITGO 6, José Ángel Pereira, posted a video on Twitter, shot by him shortly before being picked up, saying he and his family were “very worried” about what would happen to him following Saab’s extradition.
Following Saab’s extradition, the Venezuelan government accused the US of “kidnapping” a Venezuelan “diplomat,” according to a statement by the Venezuelan government. Last month, Saab was named as a member of the Venezuelan government negotiating team for talks in Mexico with the country’s opposition. As a result of the extradition, the negotiation process was suspended, according to the Venezuelan government’s chief negotiator, Jorge Rodríguez.
The US ambassador to Venezuela and the Norwegian ambassador in Bogotá, who is brokering talks between the government and the opposition, both declined to comment.
In the video posted by his family after the detention, Pereira said, “We are here recording this video because at this time we and our families are very worried.”
He added that the Venezuelan government had already retaliated against the CITGO 6 in 2019 when it revoked their house arrest.
“If we’re taken into custody again, it would be under the worst conditions possible given that the SEBIN is now managed by the Ministry of Prisons. I want to record this testimony because I’m very worried,” he said in the video.
Late Saturday, Denyssee Vadell got the call from her husband, CITGO 6 member Tomeu Vadell.
“We’re all together back in the same cell. Don’t worry, don’t worry, I’m strong, we’ve been through this before and we know what to do,” he told her over the phone, she told CNN.
“Please send a hug to my grandson,” he said, his voice cracking, Denyssee told CNN. “Please send water and food starting Monday.”
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