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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

American prisoners are released from Venezuela and Iran

The Americans released by Venezuela included several executives of the Citgo oil refining company who had been detained for more than four years.

By Michael D. Shear and Farnaz Fassihi

Seven Americans who had been held captive in Venezuela for years were on their way home Saturday after President Joe Biden agreed to grant clemency to two nephews of Cilia Flores, Venezuela’s first lady, officials said. The men had been sentenced in 2017 to 18 years in prison for conspiring to smuggle cocaine into the United States.

At the same time, Iran on Saturday released Siamak Namazi, a 51-year-old dual-national Iranian American businessman who had been jailed since 2015, on a temporary furlough and lifted the travel ban on his father, Baquer Namazi, an 85-year-old former official for the United Nations, according to the family’s lawyer.

Together, the announcements regarding Venezuela and Iran represented one of the largest mass releases of Americans detained abroad in recent memory, although one U.S. official said the timing was coincidental. For Biden, freeing seven Americans, some of whom had been held for years in Venezuelan prison, was part of an aggressive push to accelerate such homecomings — an effort that has drawn some criticism for the president’s willingness to exchange convicted criminals.

The releases also come at a time of heightened global tensions that has proved dangerous for Americans traveling abroad. Brittney Griner, a professional basketball player, remains jailed in Russia for bringing hashish oil into the country after the United States denounced its president, Vladimir Putin, for invading Ukraine earlier in the year.

U.S. officials said the two Venezuelans known as the “narco nephews” — Efrain Antonio Campo Flores and Franqui Francisco Flores de Freitas — were flown to a third country on Saturday at the same time that a plane carrying the Americans landed in the same country, which officials would not name.

A senior administration official called Biden’s action to grant clemency “a tough decision and a painful decision,” but said it was the only way to persuade Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro to release the Americans.

Officials declined to say whether the prisoner swap represented a thaw in the strained relationship between the United States and the Maduro-led government in Venezuela. The United States has imposed sanctions on Maduro’s government as it has pressed for negotiations between Maduro and Juan Guaidó, the former National Assembly leader, whom the United States considers Venezuela’s legitimate interim president.

The release of the Namazis comes as negotiations over returning to a deal to limit Iran’s nuclear capabilities have stalled. American officials have long insisted that prisoner talks are not connected to the talks to revive the 2015 deal.

The White House made no official mention of the actions by Iran on Saturday, and neither did a statement issued by Biden address the release of the Venezuelan drug smugglers. But Biden welcomed home the Americans: Jorge Toledo, Tomeu Vadell, Alirio Zambrano, Jose Luis Zambrano, Jose Pereira, Matthew Heath and Osman Khan.

“These individuals will soon be reunited with their families and back in the arms of their loved ones where they belong,” Biden said in the statement. “Today, we celebrate that seven families will be whole once more.”

The last prisoner exchange involving so many people took place in 2010, when the United States agreed to release 10 Russians arrested for spying in exchange for four people detained by Moscow for their contacts with Western intelligence agencies. At the time, the swap — which was approved at a time of warming relations between the United States and Russia — represented the largest spy exchange since the end of the Cold War.

In a statement Saturday, the government of Venezuela said it welcomed the release of the nephews, saying they had been “unjustly imprisoned” and that it had decided to release the Americans “for humanitarian reasons.”

The Venezuela announcement had been months in the making, according to senior administration officials, and had been approved by Biden several weeks ago, setting in motion a series of logistical conversations between officials in both countries.

One senior administration official said both governments spent time Saturday morning confirming the identities of the people on the planes before they switched places and took off again, this time for home.

The exchange was the latest in a series of prisoner swaps that Biden has agreed to since taking office as his administration seeks to bring home Americans whom the State Department has designated as wrongfully detained abroad.

But it is also likely to be another flashpoint in the debate about releasing criminals convicted of significant crimes in exchange for detained Americans. In 2014, President Barack Obama agreed to swap five Taliban terrorists in exchange for the return of Bowe Bergdahl, an Army soldier who had deserted and been captured by the Haqqani terrorist network.

Obama’s decision to make the exchange for Bergdahl, who was dishonorably discharged, sparked intense debate about the willingness of the U.S. government to negotiate with terrorists, something presidents from both parties have for decades vowed not to do.

The Americans who had been held in Venezuela included five members of a group known as the “Citgo 6.” They were executives of the Citgo oil refining company who were detained more than four years ago on charges of corruption that their lawyers and U.S. officials said were trumped up. One member of the group and another American being held in Venezuela were released in March after a team of Americans from Biden’s administration flew to Caracas for discussions, officials said.

Citgo said in a tweet that its executives had been detained and convicted “without due process. We welcome the news of the release of the remaining five and are grateful to the leaders in Washington who helped bring about their release.”

Two other Americans — Heath, who was detained in 2020, and Khan, who was detained at the beginning of this year — were also among those released by Venezuela on Saturday.

Asked whether the release of the Venezuelan drug smugglers would prompt Maduro to detain more Americans, the senior administration official said he hoped that the Venezuelan president and others would realize that the president’s decision was a “rare” action that is not likely to be repeated often.

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., lashed out at the administration on Twitter.

“Today Biden released two convicted drug dealer nephews of #Venezuela dictator Maduro in exchange for 7 innocent Americans being held hostage,” said Rubio, whose state is home to many Venezuelans who fled the socialist governments there.

“Another Biden appeasement that will result in more anti-U.S. dictators taking more innocent Americans hostage in the future,” Rubio wrote.

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