By Marianna Parraga, Mayela Armas and Trevor Hunnicutt
CARACAS/WASHINGTON (Reuters) -Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro’s government is freeing at least 20 opposition-linked prisoners and 10 Americans in exchange for the U.S release of a Maduro ally, two senior U.S. officials said on Wednesday.
The Maduro ally is Colombian businessman Alex Saab, who was granted clemency by U.S. President Joe Biden and sent back to Venezuela, according to one of the officials.
U.S. prosecutors had accused Saab of siphoning off some $350 million from Venezuela via the United States in a scheme that involved bribing Venezuelan government officials. He denies the charge.
As part of the deal, all six Americans who were classified by the U.S. as wrongfully detained in Venezuela were released, the U.S. officials said.
Venezuela also returned to the United States fugitive Malaysian businessman Leonard Glenn Francis, known as “Fat Leonard,” who is implicated in a U.S. Navy bribery case, the officials said.
The Venezuelans released include six education campaigners, according to their lawyer and the wife of one of them. They were convicted on conspiracy charges earlier this year and sentenced to 16 years, but have proclaimed their innocence.
The White House has said in recent weeks that it expected to see progress on prisoner releases in order to continue with energy sanctions relief for Caracas, unveiled in October in response to an agreement by the Venezuelan government to hold fair elections in 2024.
Although the releases could be seen as a step by Maduro to comply with U.S. demands, the return of Saab marks a victory for Maduro. Saab has not yet been convicted and his return to Venezuela was previously seen as unlikely.
Washington had given the Venezuelan government until Nov. 30 to make progress on removing public office bans on opposition candidates and start releasing political prisoners and “wrongfully detained” Americans in order to avoid a reinstatement of sanctions.
Venezuela is allowing opposition candidates to appeal their bans, but it had not made much progress on prisoner releases before this week.
The U.S. citizens classified as wrongly detained and now released are Eyvin Hernandez, Jerrel Kenemore, Joseph Ryan Cristella and Savoi Wright, one U.S. official said. They declined to name the others, citing privacy concerns.
Hernandez and Kenemore were arrested near Venezuela’s border with Colombia in March 2022, while Cristella was arrested in July last year. The three men were accused of trying to enter the country illegally.
“I am grateful that their ordeal is finally over, and that these families are being made whole once more,” Biden said in a written statement. “We are ensuring that the Venezuelan regime meets its commitments.”
The prisoner swap talks were mediated by Qatar, which was asked by both sides to help improve relations between the United States and OPEC member Venezuela, according to two people briefed on the agreement. Qatar’s chief negotiator met Maduro last week.
“The government of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela celebrates with joy the liberation and return to his homeland of our diplomat Alex Saab, who until today was unjustly kidnapped in a U.S. jail,” the Venezuelan government said in a statement.
Saab was the victim of U.S. retaliation for his diplomatic efforts, the statement added.
A lawyer for Saab declined to comment. Saab had pleaded not guilty, and his trial date had not yet been set.
Four Venezuelans involved either with the campaign of opposition presidential candidate Maria Corina Machado or the organization of the opposition’s October primary are also expected to be freed or have their arrest orders withdrawn, sources have said.