U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Friday condemned what he called the “wrongful” convictions of six Citgo employees in Venezuela, describing the South American nation’s justice system as a “kangaroo court.”
“After canceling their initial appearance before a judge dozens of times over the last three years, the illegitimate Venezuelan legal system suddenly convicted and sentenced these oil executives without any evidence,” Pompeo said in a statement.
The convictions of the five Americans and one permanent U.S. resident also drew expressions of heartbreak and outrage from the family members of the so-called “Citgo Six.”
“We, the family, are heartbroken to be separated even further from our loved ones,” Alirio Rafael Zambrano, brother of two of the Americans found guilty, said. “We pray that the leaders of our nation step forward and continue to fight unceasingly for their freedom and human rights.”
The employees have been detained for three years on what the secretary of state called “specious” embezzlement charges, “the majority of the time in horrific prison conditions, these six individuals should be immediately returned to the United States.”
Five of the men — U.S. citizens who work for the Houston-based company owned by Venezuela’s state oil company — were sentenced to eight years and a sixth permanent U.S. resident was sentenced to 13 years.
Their defense attorney Jesus Loreto said the U.S. citizens may be able to be released on parole after a couple of years.
All six deny the charges.
Pompeo added in a statement posted to Twitter that “The use of a legal system to exert political power is yet another example of why free and fair elections are needed in Venezuela.”
The Associated Press and Caitin McFall contributed to this report.