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U.S. oil executives released from prison to house arrest in Venezuela

epa07091587 The iconic Citgo sign is seen beyond the outfield prior to the start of the American League Championship Series game one at Fenway Park in Boston, Massachusetts, USA, 13 October 2018. The winner of the best-of seven series will go on to face either the Milwaukee Brewers or the Los Angeles Dodgers in the World Series. EPA-EFE/CJ GUNTHER
epa07091587 The iconic Citgo sign is seen beyond the outfield prior to the start of the American League Championship Series game one at Fenway Park in Boston, Massachusetts, USA, 13 October 2018. The winner of the best-of seven series will go on to face either the Milwaukee Brewers or the Los Angeles Dodgers in the World Series. EPA-EFE/CJ GUNTHER

May 1 (UPI) -- Five U.S. citizens and a Venezuelan citizen who had been serving prison time in Venezuela have been released to house arrest, according to lawyers for the men and a former U.S. governor.

The group, collectively known as the Citgo 6 because they were executives of the U.S.-based Citgo refinery, was arrested in 2017 on corruption charges.

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They are accused of money laundering and embezzlement involving a $4 billion Citgo scheme that was never completed, and have been viewed as negotiating pawns in the increasingly tense relationship between the United States and Venezuela.

Attorneys Maria Alejandra Poleo and Jesus Loreto told CNN the men were released from prison Friday in Caracas and were on their way home.

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"We do not know what prompted this ruling from the court, but we take it as a political gesture of goodwill towards the United States," Poleo said.

Former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson has acted as a non-government negotiator in favor of the men's release.

"We are relieved to hear today that Tomeu Vadell, Alirio Zambrano, Jose Luis Zambrano, Gustavo Cárdenas, Jorge Toledo and Jose Pereira, known as the CITGO-6, have been released from prison and granted house arrest in Venezuela," said a statement from his organization, the Richardson Center. "This is a positive and important step that should help secure their wellbeing during the COVID-19 outbreak in Venezuela."

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Family members of the men had previously said the men were held in inhumane conditions, sharing overcrowded basement cells in a military prison and suffering severe weight loss.

The men had previously been on house arrest but were imprisoned in February 2020.

Then-president Donald Trump's administration demanded their release in March 2020 and later sanctioned the Venezuelan judge and prosecutor in connection with the sentencing of the Citgo 6 the previous month.

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