Americans Freed in Prisoner Swap With Venezuela

Americans Freed in Prisoner Swap With Venezuela

( – It’s not uncommon for two nations to engage in a prisoner swap. The United States has participated in several, often with countries where tensions run high, such as Russia, Cuba, and Iran. Typically, the US negotiates on behalf of citizens the State Department has categorized as wrongfully detained, usually making a concession or two in the process. Now, the US can add Venezuela to that list.

The Deal

On Wednesday, December 20, US officials announced the release of Alex Saab, a close ally of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, in exchange for 10 American prisoners, six of whom the State Department had categorized as “wrongfully detained.”

The Justice Department (DOJ) had accused Saab of money laundering, siphoning an estimated $350 million in a bribery scheme, a charge he denies. He initially tried to claim diplomatic immunity, but a federal judge rejected that claim because the US stopped recognizing Maduro’s government in 2019. Critics touted the move by the Trump administration as controversial, especially in light of the Biden Administration’s recent efforts to improve diplomatic relations with Venezuela.

The six wrongly detained Americans released included Eyvin Hernandez, Edgar Jose Marval Moreno, Joseph Cristella, Jason Saad, Jerrel Kenemore, and Savoi Wright. By Wednesday night, they had landed back on American soil in Texas. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan posted a picture of the hostages on X, formerly Twitter.

In a statement after their return, President Joe Biden described how the men had “lost far too much precious time” with people they love and expressed his gratitude that “their ordeal is finally over.”

“Fat Leonard” Part of the Deal

Also part of the deal was Leonard Francis, a defense contractor known as “Fat Leonard.” He fled to the South American country after escaping house arrest. The Malaysian fugitive was at the center of a bribery and fraud case involving the US Navy. Francis provided defense contractors and Navy officials luxury goods, travel, meals, and more in exchange for signing lucrative deals with his business, Glenn Defense Marine Asia.

The contractor thought he would receive freedom by the end of the year. Instead, Venezuelan officials put him on a plane and flew him to Canouan, a Caribbean island, where they handed him off to US officials, all so he couldn’t contest the extradition.

At the time of his escape, Francis had pleaded guilty and was awaiting sentencing. He faced up to 25 years in prison for the conviction, though it’s not immediately clear if he will face more charges for fleeing.

Venezuela also agreed to release several opposition-linked Venezuelans.

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