Venezuela, US reach prisoner swap deal as tensions ease

Ten prisoners arrive back in the US and Maduro ally Alex Saab returns to Venezuela after US President Joe Biden grants him clemency.

A group photo of the freed Americans in an aircraft hangar at the base in San Antonio. There's a US flag behind them. Government officials are also in the photo
The six Americans considered wrongly imprisoned, after their arrival back in the US [Stephen Spillman/AP]

The 10 American prisoners freed by Venezuela in exchange for a jailed ally of President Nicolas Maduro, have arrived back in the United States in the latest sign of improving relations between Washington and Caracas.

The group, including six citizens the US considered wrongly imprisoned, landed at the San Antonio military base in Texas on Wednesday night.

“All the Americans who were wrongfully detained in Venezuela are now safely back in the United States,” US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan wrote on social media platform X. “Welcome home.”

Savoi Wright, who was reportedly arrested and detained in October, told a journalist that while he sometimes received good care, he also feared for his life at times.

“I didn’t know if I would ever make it out,” he said.

Under the prisoner swap announced earlier on Wednesday by the White House, US President Joe Biden granted clemency to Alex Saab, a Colombian businessman and Maduro ally who was being held in a Miami jail awaiting trial on a charge of money laundering.

Saab was also released from custody and returned to Venezuela on Wednesday, the Venezuelan government said.

US prosecutors have accused Saab of siphoning off $350m from Venezuela via the US in a scheme that involved bribing Venezuelan government officials. He has denied the charge.

“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.

Reporting from Bogota, Colombia, Al Jazeera’s Alessandro Rampietti said Saab was seen as being “very close” to the Venezuelan leader.

“Alex Saab is a Colombian entrepreneur, a very close ally for Nicolas Maduro, a person who is seen here as a bag man for the Venezuelan regime,” Rampietti said.

Nicolas Maduro hugs Alex Saab after he arrived back in Venezuela following a prisoner swap deal with the US. They are smiling. Other people are standing behind them.
Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro embraces Alex Saab outside the Miraflores Palace after he was freed by the US and returned to Venezuela [Leonardo Fernandez Viloria/Reuters]

The White House said Venezuela had also agreed to release at least 20 Venezuelan prisoners, including “political detainees”.

The prisoner swap talks were facilitated by Qatar, the White House said. Qatar’s chief negotiator met Maduro last week.

In a statement on Thursday, Qatar’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs thanked the US and Venezuela for their response to its mediation, calling it a “part of a broader mediation effort aimed at addressing outstanding issues between the two countries”.

“[The] success of the mediation reaffirms the State of Qatar’s status as a reliable regional and global partner and reflects its effective role in peacemaking, enhancing security, and promoting stability in the region and the world,” it said.

The Qatari statement said the Gulf state successfully mediated some important global issues, including helping Washington in its talks with the Afghan Taliban and the Iranian regime, and added that its efforts to achieve a ceasefire in the embattled Gaza Strip continue.

Six Venezuelan activists have already been freed, according to their lawyer and the wife of one of them. The longtime education campaigners were convicted on conspiracy charges this year and sentenced to 16 years but have proclaimed their innocence.

Venezuela also returned to the US the fugitive Malaysian businessman Leonard Glenn Francis, popularly known as “Fat Leonard”, who orchestrated one of the largest bribery scandals in US military history.

Francis fled the US in September last year on the eve of his scheduled sentencing over his role in the scandal, which involved dozens of US naval officials. He was arrested at Caracas airport as he was preparing to board a plane to another country.

The military contractor pleaded guilty in 2015 to offering prostitution services, luxury travel and hotels, lavish meals and more than $500,000 in bribes to US Navy officials and others to help his Singapore-based ship servicing company, Glenn Defense Marine Asia (GDMA), secure lucrative US naval contracts.

The White House said in recent weeks that it expected to see progress on prisoner releases if it were to continue with sanctions relief for Caracas. The sanctions relief was unveiled in October in response to an agreement by the Venezuelan government to hold fair elections in 2024.

While relations between the US and Venezuela remain uneasy, the two nations have taken steps to ease tensions in recent months.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies