Venezuela: Americans freed in swap deal – and fraudster Fat Leonard returned


Picture of Leonard Glenn Francis
Image caption,Francis was behind what has been described as one of the most embarrassing incidents in the US Navy’s history

By Vanessa Buschschlüter & Sean Seddon

BBC News

An infamous fugitive billionaire – known as Fat Leonard – has been released as part of a prisoner swap with Venezuela, the White House has confirmed.

The fugitive, whose real name is Leonard Glenn Francis, masterminded a $35m (£30m) fraud against the US Navy. He escaped from US custody in 2022.

Ten US citizens held in Venezuela were released as part of the deal.

In exchange, the US released Alex Saab, an aide to Venezuela’s president.

Francis, the most high-profile prisoner involved in the deal, was detained in September 2022 trying to board a flight from Venezuela to Russia while on the run from US authorities.

The Malaysian businessman had escaped house arrest in California two weeks earlier, where he was being held after admitting to his role in a sprawling scam that cost the US tens of millions of dollars and implicated dozens of navy officers.

Prosecutors say he used his Singapore-based business – which had contracts to service US naval vessels – to defraud the US Navy, while also plying American officers with cash and gifts as bribes.

Court documents filed as part of his plea agreement accused Francis of giving US officials millions of dollars worth of gifts, which included lavish trips, “top-shelf alcohol and wine”, Spanish suckling pigs, Cuban cigars and access to prostitution services.

Francis was first arrested in 2013, and pleaded guilty to offering $500,000 (£444,000) in bribes in 2015.

Journalist Tom Wright, who made a podcast with Francis entitled Fat Leonard, told the BBC that Francis made “huge amounts of money” after the 9/11 terror attacks by overcharging the US Navy.

Mr Wright added that Francis had agreed to do the podcast as he was “furious” over what he saw as a cover-up. “Admiral after admiral who were involved with him were not taken to court criminally. In the US, it was more lower level officers [who were taken to court].”

In a statement, President Joe Biden said Francis will now be “sentenced for his lead role in a brazen bribery and corruption case”.

Alluding to the other US nationals released by Venezuela, he added: “I am grateful that their ordeal is finally over, and that these families are being made whole once more.”

The swap deal will also see Mr Saab, a close aide of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, returned.

He faced allegations of laundering money on behalf of the Maduro government, which he denied.

Mr Saab was extradited to the US in 2021 after being arrested during a stopover in Cape Verde.

A demonstrator holds a poster that reads "Free Alex Saab" during a rally in support of Colombian businessman and close ally of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro in the Petare neighbourhood of Caracas, Venezuela, on Monday, April 4, 2022.
Image caption,The agreement sees the US release an aide close to Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro

The Maduro government has long demanded the release of Mr Saab, whom it describes as a “diplomat”.

The Colombian-born businessman was on his way to Iran when he was detained on an Interpol “red notice” while his plane refuelled in Cape Verde in 2020.

The Venezuelan government described him as an “envoy” and argued that he had been travelling to Iran to buy medical supplies during the Covid-19 pandemic.

But Cape Verde ruled that he did not have diplomatic status and extradited him to the US, where he was charged with money laundering and bribery.

According to US prosecutors, Mr Saab siphoned off $350m (£276m) from Venezuelan government contracts by fraudulently using favourable exchange rates.

Camilla Fabri, the wife of Colombian businessman Alex Saab, who was extradited to the US, speaks during a demonstration demanding his release, at the Bolivar square in Caracas, on October 17, 202
Image caption,Alex Saab’s wife, Camilla Fabri, is in Venezuela as her home country of Italy has issued an arrest warrant for her

He then allegedly laundered the money in the US before finally transferring it to accounts controlled by him and his alleged associate.

The US treasury department has described Mr Saab as a “profiteer orchestrating a vast corruption network” that it says enabled “President Nicolás Maduro and his regime to significantly profit from food imports and distribution in Venezuela”.

Mr Saab has denied the charges and the Maduro government has stood by him, even walking out of US-backed talks with the Venezuelan opposition in protest at Mr Saab’s extradition in 2021.

The White House also said Joseph Cristella, Eyvin Hernandez, Jerrel Kenemore, and Savoi Wright were among those released.

It classes six of the 10 Americans released by Venezuela as having been “wrongfully detained”.

The White House also said Venezuela had agreed to release 20 Venezuelan political prisoners, as well as opposition figure Roberto Abdul, and had committed to suspending the arrest warrants of three other Venezuelans.

This is not the first prisoner swap the US and Venezuela have agreed.

In October 2022, Venezuela freed seven jailed US citizens in exchange for the release of two nephews of Mr Maduro’s wife.

Known as the “narco-nephews”, the two men had been serving 18-year sentences in the US for attempting to smuggle cocaine into the US.

Relations between the two countries eased further in October this year when the US agreed to loosen its sanctions on Venezuela in exchange for President Maduro agreeing to allow international observers to monitor next year’s presidential election.

But the US has since reiterated its demand that US citizens “wrongfully detained” in Venezuela be freed and threatened to reimpose sanctions if progress was not made on the issue.

Human rights groups in Venezuela have reacted to the news by demanding that the close to 300 people they list as political prisoners in Venezuelan jails also be freed.

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