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Negotiators in Venezuela Seek Freedom for Jailed US Citizens

The Helicoide facility in Caracas where some of the prisoners are held(Nelson Garrido/Project Helicoide)

  • Special envoy Carstens holds talks with Maduro government
  • US seeks extradition of Malaysian arms dealer ‘Fat Leonard’

By Fabiola Zerpa, Eric Martin and Andreina Itriago Acosta

A US delegation arrived in Caracas this week to seek the release of US prisoners held by the Venezuelan government, according to people with knowledge of the matter.

Led by Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs Roger Carstens, the group has been in talks with officials from Nicolás Maduro’s government, said the people, who asked not to be named, since the discussions are private. CNN first reported the visit on Wednesday.

There are at least four US citizens currently imprisoned in the country, including Eyvin Hernández, a lawyer, and Jerrel Kenemore, a computer programmer, who the US says were wrongfully detained. Both men were arrested at Venezuela’s border with Colombia in March 2022, in separate incidents, and charged with criminal association and conspiracy.

Venezuela is also holding two former Green Berets, Luke Denman and Airan Berry, who were jailed for terrorism after a farcical 2020 plot to try to overthrow Maduro. The US doesn’t recognize the pair as having been wrongfully imprisoned.

A State Department spokesperson confirmed that Carstens visited the country for “discussions about the welfare and safety of U.S. nationals wrongfully detained in Venezuela.”

Kenemore’s sister, Jeana Tillery, said her brother has been on hunger strike for 19 days and needs urgent medical care for health issues, including bipolar disorder and a brain injury.

It remains unclear what the Venezuelan government might receive in exchange if any of the prisoners are freed. Maduro has been calling for Washington to ease economic sanctions, though US officials have said that, for this to happen, his government would need to show that next year’s presidential election will be free and fair.

‘Fat Leonard’

The US may also be interested in securing the extradition of Leonard Glenn Francis, a Malaysian defense contractor known as “Fat Leonard”, who is accused by a US court of participating in a US Navy bribery scheme. Venezuela arrested the man in September while he was in transit to take a flight to Moscow.

Carstens last visited Caracas in June of last year with former US Ambassador to Venezuela James Story to negotiate the release or Matthew Heath, a former US Marine who had been imprisoned since September 2020.

While the mission didn’t immediately succeed, Heath was later released in October alongside seven oil executives in a swap involving two members of Maduro’s family imprisoned in the US, who had been jailed on for cocaine trafficking.

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