Diplomatic Jail Break

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Venezuela released 10 US citizens and more than 20 opposition-linked prisoners from jail this week, as part of a prisoner swap deal with the United States that observers described as the latest rapprochement effort between the two countries, Reuters reported.

The released individuals included six Americans who were wrongfully detained in the South American country and two former US Army Special Forces members, who were arrested in 2020 in connection with a botched raid aimed at ousting Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro.

Among the released was also fugitive Leonard Francis, a former Malaysian businessman who has been accused by US authorities of bribing US Navy officers in exchange for contracts and classified information, according to the Washington Post.

US prosecutors alleged that Francis defrauded American taxpayers of around $50 million. He later escaped house arrest in the US and tried to flee to Cuba, before settling in Venezuela where he was later detained and faced extradition proceedings.

For its part, the US released Colombian businessman and Maduro ally, Alex Saab. He was accused by US officials of siphoning off some $350 million from Venezuela via the United States in a scheme that involved bribing Venezuelan government officials.

Saab denied any wrongdoing and his trial date had not yet been set before his release this week.

The prisoner swap deal followed months of Qatar-mediated talks between Caracas and Washington, as both countries have sought to thaw relations over the past year.

In October, Washington unveiled plans to provide sanctions relief to Venezuela’s energy sector if Caracas promises to hold free and fair elections in next year’s presidential race.

The US set a deadline of Nov. 30 for Venezuela to address concerns, including lifting bans on opposition candidates and releasing political prisoners and detained Americans, to prevent sanctions reinstatement.

While Venezuela is allowing opposition candidates to appeal their bans, progress on prisoner releases was limited until this recent week.

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