The State Department is calling for the release of six Citgo executives who were taken back to prison in Venezuela on Wednesday after spending two months under house arrest.
The arrests of the men, known as the "Citgo 6," came hours after Venezuela’s opposition leader, Juan Guaidó, met with his strongest international ally, President Donald Trump, at the White House.
The U.S. special representative for Venezuela, Elliot Abrams, told reporters Thursday, “The timing is suspicious, but I can’t speculate as to why it happened now.”
Abrams, who called the men political prisoners, condemned the arrests and called for their release.
The American executives — five U.S. citizens and one permanent resident — had been under house arrest for almost two months, after being imprisoned for almost two years in a Venezuelan prison, when they were abruptly taken away by masked, armed security guards Wednesday evening, according to relatives. The men were told they were being taken to medical appointments and would be returned to home. Instead they were taken to El Helicoide prison, run by the country’s intelligence service.
“There is no court order revoking their house arrest and there is no order for them to be transferred,” Carlos Añez, the stepson of Jorge Toledo, one of the detainees, told NBC News.
“We’re extremely stressed and worried about his well being,” he added, saying that Toledo does not have his medication with him.
Jason Poblete, the attorney representing Tomeu Vadell, another detainee, said he is “concerned about recent events in D.C. and how they may impact the safety and security” of his client.
The executives' imprisonment also came after U.S. officials warned that measures against Venezuela would accelerate and intensify in the coming weeks, including the possibility of sanctioning Russian entities. Russia is a strong ally of Maduro, and he has successfully evaded U.S. oil sanctions with the help of Russia, India and other countries.
Abrams reiterated Thursday that “as several administration officials have noted, the Russians may soon find that their continued support of Maduro will no longer be cost free.”
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov arrived in Venezuela on Thursday and was set to meet with Maduro on Friday.
Toledo, Vadell, Jose Luis Zambrano, Alirio Zambrano, Gustavo Cárdenas and José Pereira, with deep roots in Texas and Louisiana, were arrested just before Thanksgiving 2017. They had been called for a last-minute meeting in Venezuela at the headquarters of the Venezuelan state-owned oil giant Petróleos de Venezuela, or PDVSA. Houston-based Citgo is the U.S. subsidiary of PDVSA.
Once in the conference room at the PDVSA headquarters, armed masked security agents hauled the men away and accused them of signing off on a deal to refinance Citgo’s debt with terms unfavorable to Venezuela, and offering Citgo as collateral. Documents, previously viewed by NBC News, dating to February 2017 show refinancing negotiations were approved by PDVSA’s board but a deal was never signed.
The relatives of the men have vigorously disputed the corruption charges.
Before they were under house arrest, the men were held in the basement of Venezuela’s military counterintelligence agency under conditions that relatives have described as human rights violations.
“This toys with everyone’s emotions," said Añez about the recent arrest. "We were happy they were under house arrest. We thought it was a step forward. And now it was taken all away."