CARACAS, Venezuela — A Venezuelan judge on Thursday found six American oil executives guilty of a wide-ranging corruption scheme and immediately sentenced them to prison.

The so-called Citgo 6 — employees of the Houston-based Citgo refining company, which is owned by Venezuela’s state oil company, PDVSA — had been lured to Venezuela three years ago for a business meeting and arrested.

The men — Gustavo Cárdenas, Jorge Toledo, Tomeu Vadell, Jose Luis Zambrano, Alirio Jose Zambrano and Jose Angel Pereira — each face more than eight years in prison. Five are Venezuelan-Americans with roots in Texas and Louisiana, and one is a permanent U.S. resident, according to media reports.

Five of the men were sentenced to prison terms of eight years and 10 months, while one received a 13-year sentence. A defense lawyer, Jesus Loreto, said the five with lesser terms could be released on parole in a couple of years.

Relatives of the men say they had been wrongly convicted, and defense lawyers vowed to appeal Thursday’s verdicts. Alirio Rafael Zambrano, whose two brothers are among the defendants, said that they were “undeniably innocent” and victims of “judicial terrorism.” No evidence presented in the case supports a guilty conviction, he said.

“We, the family, are heartbroken to be separated even further from our loved ones,” Mr. Zambrano said by phone from New Jersey. “We pray that the leaders of our nation step forward and continue to fight unceasingly for their freedom and human rights.”

The lawyer María Alejandra Poleo, who helped represent three of the men, said the case was “void of evidence,” adding, “Of course the defense will appeal the decision.”

Corruption has been a chronic and well-known problem for years at PDVSA and has helped to undercut its operations and profits. With the arrests of the six men, President Nicolás Maduro’s government began a purge in Venezuela’s once-thriving oil industry, built on the world’s largest crude reserves. It later arrested the head of PDVSA, a former oil minister and dozens of others.

Before the sentencing, one of the executives, Mr. Vadell, who has been imprisoned in Venezuela for three years, said in a letter provided to The Associated Press that all he hoped for was a fair trial so that he could clear his name and go home to his family in the United States.

Mr. Vadell, 61, said that it was especially painful to be separated during the Thanksgiving season from his wife, three adult children and a newborn grandson he’s never held.

“Before living this tragedy, these celebrations were very special times for our family,” he wrote, saying that he embraced the traditional American holiday after moving in 1999 from Caracas to Lake Charles, La., for a job with the Venezuelan-owned Citgo. “Now, they bring me a lot of sadness,” he said.

It was the first time that Mr. Vadell or any of the Citgo 6 had spoken publicly since being arrested.

Mr. Vadell and five other Citgo executives were summoned to the headquarters of the Venezuelan state-run oil firm PDVSA, the parent company of the Houston-based Citgo, for what they had been told was a budget meeting on Nov. 21, 2017. A corporate jet shuttled them to Caracas and they were told they’d be home for Thanksgiving.

Instead, a cadre of military intelligence officers swarmed the boardroom, taking them to jail. Their trial started four months ago and closing arguments took place on Thursday.

Mr. Vadell has been held at a feared Caracas jail called El Helicoide.

Despite his circumstances, he said, he held out hope for a brighter future.

“During the trial, the truth has proven undeniable,” he said in the four-page handwritten letter. “It proves that I am innocent.”

Orignially published in NYT.

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