U.S. strikes prisoner swap deal with Venezuela, plus extradition of 'Fat Leonard'
Updated December 20, 2023 at 3:40 PM ET
The Biden administration has reached an agreement with officials representing Venezuelan leader Nicolás Maduro securing the release of a group of Americans and Venezuelans being held in the country — as well as the extradition of a notorious fugitive known best as "Fat Leonard."
In exchange, President Biden granted clemency to Alex Saab, a Maduro ally arrested in 2020 on a U.S. warrant for money laundering.
"We've secured the release of every American being held in Venezuela. [They're] on their way home," Biden told reporters.
The deal came after months of negotiations brokered by Qatar and involved top officials from the White House and representatives of Maduro.
The group of Americans released included Joseph Cristella, Eyvin Hernandez, Jerrel Kenemore, and Savoi Wright, but senior administration officials declined to provide the names of the other Americans for privacy reasons.
What the prisoner swap deal includes
Biden administration officials said the deal resulted in the release of:
- six Americans wrongfully detained in Venezuela
- four other Americans detained in the country
- 21 Venezuelan prisoners, including Roberto Abdul, an opposition leader arrested this month for treason
Venezuelan officials also agreed to suspend arrest warrants for three other Venezuelan individuals.
Biden officials said they insisted on the release of the Venezuelan prisoners because of what's known as the "Barbados Agreement." It's an agreement brokered by a number of European and regional leaders to pave the way for fair elections in Venezuela in 2024.
The Biden administration has supported those efforts, temporarily lifting sanctions on its oil exports to try to encourage Maduro to allow them to go ahead.
"Venezuela thus far is keeping their commitment toward a democratic election — it's not over yet," Biden said. "They've made detailed commitments. We'll see if they hold them. But we're going to hold them accountable."
'Fat Leonard' is returning to federal detention in the U.S.
The deal also includes the extradition of fugitive Leonard Francis, better known as "Fat Leonard." Francis will be sent to a U.S. federal detention facility to await sentencing related to what officials called "one of the most brazen bribery conspiracies in the U.S. Navy's history."
Francis, a Malaysian defense contractor, had pled guilty to bribing Navy officials to steer contracts to his companies using cash, prostitutes, and luxury travel and items such as "Cuban cigars, Kobe beef and Spanish suckling pig," officials said, but cut off an ankle tracking bracelet while on house arrest in 2022 while he was awaiting sentencing.
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