Venezuela hands US ‘Fat Leonard’ and others in prisoner exchange

Many of the 10 American nationals released had been designated “wrongfully detained” by the U.S. government. Among those released are Joseph Cristella, Eyvin Hernandez, Jerrel Kenemore and Savoi Wright. U.S. officials declined to immediately share other names out of privacy concerns.

Caracas is also releasing 20 Venezuelan political prisoners and opposition leader Roberto Abdul. The Venezuelan government also agreed to suspend arrest warrants for three other Venezuelans.

Caracas will also return to the United States Leonard Francis, a Malaysian national and defense contractor nicknamed “Fat Leonard,” who oversaw a widespread scheme to bribe Navy officials and fled to Venezuela in 2022 in an attempt to evade prosecution.

Administration officials said the U.S. is releasing Saab, a Colombian businessman who was indicted in the U.S. and Colombia for money laundering and other crimes in service of the Venezuelan government. Saab’s arrest temporarily halted negotiations between Maduro and Venezuelan opposition leaders.

In a statement, Biden said he was “grateful” that the wrongfully detained Americans were on their way back home and reiterated his “support of democracy in Venezuela and the aspirations of the Venezuelan people.”

U.S. officials said on Wednesday that sanctions relief is not part of this deal. The Biden administration has previously rolled back sanctions on Venezuela’s oil and gas industries, but maintains targeted sanctions against Venezuelan officials related to human rights abuses, drug trafficking and support for terrorism.

Among the parties involved in negotiating the trade was Qatar, a Middle Eastern country that has been key to a number of such arrangements, including recent releases of Israeli hostages by the Hamas militant group.

Biden administration officials told reporters that Qatar facilitated conversations between members of Maduro’s government and U.S. officials over several months in order to obtain the return of wrongfully detained Americans and ensure that Venezuela’s elections in 2024 are competitive.

The deal comes as Venezuela’s yearslong
economic struggles continue

under the Maduro dictatorship and American sanctions. It also follows a controversial referendum in Venezuela earlier this month where voters were asked whether they would support annexing the Essequibo region, an oil and mineral-rich region of rainforest and savannah in neighboring Guyana that has been fiercely contested between the two countries for over a century.

The Biden administration has negotiated a number of prisoner swaps with major adversaries. Back in September, the U.S. agreed to a
controversial exchange with Iran

ahead of the U.N. General Assembly. In December 2022, the U.S. also traded Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout
for WNBA player Brittney Griner


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