U.S. officials say the U.S. is not negotiating a new Venezuelan prisoner exchange despite the appeal

U.S. officials say the U.S. is not negotiating a new Venezuelan prisoner exchange despite the appeal

By Jonathan Land and Vivian Dry

WASHINGTON/CARACAS (Reuters) – The United States is not discussing a prisoner exchange as described in a letter and video appeal addressed to President Joe Biden by an American detained in Venezuela, according to two U.S. officials.

Evin Hernandez was “probably coerced” into swapping him and seven other US detainees to Biden for Colombian-born businessman Alex Saab, who is on trial in Miami, a US official said on condition of anonymity.

Hernandez, a 35-year-old Los Angeles public defender, sent the letter and video to Biden in February.

“I am making this appeal to you on behalf of myself, my family, my friends and all other US Americans who are illegally detained in Venezuela,” Hernandez said in the video, which was reviewed by Reuters. Reported for the first time. “We know that if you trade Alex Sabe for all of us, we’ll be free.”

His letter, also reviewed by Reuters, was previously reported by Newsweek.

Venezuela’s information ministry did not respond to questions about whether a prisoner swap was being considered or whether Hernandez was forced to appeal.

In the video, Hernandez said that swapping him and the other prisoners for Saab, a longtime ally of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, would be the “only way” to free them.

Saab is accused of laundering nearly $350 million from Venezuela through the United States in a bribery scheme linked to Venezuela’s state-controlled exchange rate. He denied the allegations. No date has been set for his trial.

Declining to comment on the specifics of any ongoing case, a U.S. State Department spokeswoman indicated that discussions about a prisoner swap involving Saab could be possible after his trial has run its course.

The spokesman cautioned against any reports suggesting a deal had been reached to release an American wrongfully detained in Venezuela, “or that there are active conversations about releasing any U.S. criminal suspect who has not even gone to trial.”

The first US official added that there are no talks underway.

Hernandez’s brother, Henry Martinez, told Reuters via WhatsApp from Los Angeles that the family had not received any official information from US officials about a possible exchange.

Focus on liberating Americans

Biden said freeing Americans wrongfully detained overseas is a top priority. He has presided over several swaps, most notably one in December in which Moscow released basketball star Brittany Griner in exchange for convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout.

The video shows Hernandez being shaved. He was well fed, sitting in a green sweatshirt over a blue shirt and pants. The handwritten letter lies on a desk in front of him.

Reuters did not know how the video and letter were delivered to the White House. That Hernández was allowed to make them was approved by Venezuelan authorities.

In his letter, Hernandez wrote that his petition was supported by three other US prisoners: Jerrell Kenmore, Jason Saad and Joseph Cristella.

The Biden administration declared Hernandez wrongfully detained in October. He and Kenmore, 53, were arrested in March 2022 on charges of illegally entering Venezuela from Colombia.

Caracas released seven Americans in October in exchange for two of Maduro’s relatives convicted of drug trafficking in the United States amid talks between U.S. and Venezuelan officials that began in March 2022.

The talks marked a shift in U.S. policy from the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” sanctions campaign and other moves aimed at forcing Maduro from power after the 2018 election was widely viewed as fraudulent.

Venezuela has the world’s largest proven oil reserves. The Biden administration is seeking alternative oil sources due to disruptions related to the war in Ukraine.

Washington has said Maduro’s government must take firm steps toward free elections and release detained politicians before considering easing sanctions.

(Additional reporting by Simon Lewis in Washington; Editing by Daniel Wallis)

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