Six U.S. oil executives held for three years in Venezuela were convicted and sentenced to lengthy prison terms Thursday.
Known as the Citgo 6, the men are all employees of the Houston-based refining company of the same name, which is owned by Venezuela's state oil company, PDVSA.
Five of the men, Gustavo Cárdenas, Jorge Toledo, Jose Luis Zambrano and Alirio Zambrano, and Tomeu Vadell, all U.S. citizens, were sentenced to eight years and 10 months. Jose Pereira, a permanent resident of the U.S., received 13 years, The Associated Press reports.
Thursday's sentencing is the culmination of a saga that began Nov. 21, 2017, the day the men arrived for what they were told was a sudden business meeting in the country's capital of Caracas. Once in the boardroom, however, military intelligence officers stormed the room. Officers demanded the men hand over passports and other identification cards, and then hauled them off to jail, the AP and the Financial Times report.
They were charged with embezzlement tied to a never-executed proposal to refinance around $4 billion of Citgo bonds. All six maintain their innocence.
CNN reports that appeals will be made for the men.
The arrests came at a tumultuous time for the country, when relations between the Trump administration and Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro began to deteriorate. Maduro launched a purge of PDVSA following the arrest of the men. Since then, the country has slid into its worst-ever economic meltdown, including the collapse of its oil industry.
The trial of the six, which was shut to the media, began in August. Closing arguments were made Thursday, and immediately after, Judge Lorena Cornielles sentenced the men to prison, according to the AP.
Citgo said in a statement sent to NPR that company representatives have only seen media reports of their colleagues' conviction.
"While we do not have first-hand knowledge of these reported convictions, we are distressed to read about this outcome," the company said in a statement. "We continue to pray for them and their families and hope for a resolution that will lead to their prompt release. We also hope that the Venezuelan authorities honor the request of the United States Government that they be released."
On Nov. 21, the anniversary of the Citgo 6's arrest, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the U.S. will continue to do the "utmost" to bring the men home.
"The U.S. government has repeatedly called for the unconditional release of the CITGO-6 and their return to the United States. These six Americans and their families have suffered long enough; it is time for Maduro to put politics aside and let these families be reunited," Pompeo said in his statement.
A representative with the U.S. State Department didn't immediately respond to a request for a comment on Thursday's sentencing.