American Prisoners Are Released From Venezuela and Iran – The New York Times

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Caracas let go seven Americans in a trade for two nephews of Venezuela’s first lady who had been convicted on drug charges. Separately, Tehran freed its longest-held American prisoner.

WASHINGTON — Seven Americans held in Venezuela for years were on their way home Saturday after President Biden agreed to grant clemency to two nephews of Cilia Flores, Venezuela’s first lady, who were sentenced in 2017 to 18 years in prison for conspiring to smuggle cocaine into the United States, officials said.

At the same time, Iran on Saturday released Siamak Namazi, a 51-year-old dual-national Iranian American businessman who has been jailed since 2015, on a renewable furlough and lifted the travel ban on his father, Baquer Namazi, an 85-year-old former official for the United Nations, according to the family’s lawyer.

A senior official in the Biden administration said the timing of the two announcements was coincidental.

American officials said the two Venezuelans known as the “narco nephews” — Efrain Antonio Campo Flores and Franqui Francisco Flores de Freitas — were flown to a third country on Saturday at the same time that a plane carrying the Americans landed in the same country, which officials would not name.

A senior administration official called the president’s action to grant clemency “a tough decision and a painful decision,” but said it was the only way to convince Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro to release the Americans.

Officials declined to say whether the prisoner swap represented a thaw in the strained relationship between the United States and the Maduro-led government in Venezuela. The United States has imposed sanctions on Mr. Maduro’s government as it presses for negotiations between Mr. Maduro and Juan Guaidó, the former National Assembly leader, whom the United States considers Venezuela’s legitimate interim president.

The release of the Namazis comes as negotiations over returning to a deal to limit Iran’s nuclear capabilities have bogged down. American officials have long insisted that prisoner talks are not connected to the talks to revive the 2015 deal.

Babak Namazi, via Reuters

The White House made no official mention of the actions by Iran on Saturday. In a statement, Mr. Biden did not mention the release of the Venezuelan drug smugglers. But he welcomed home the Americans: Jorge Toledo, Tomeu Vadell, Alirio Zambrano, Jose Luis Zambrano, Jose Pereira, Matthew Heath, and Osman Khan.

“These individuals will soon be reunited with their families and back in the arms of their loved ones where they belong,” Mr. Biden said in the statement. “Today, we celebrate that seven families will be whole once more.”

The announcement was the latest in a series of prisoner swaps that Mr. Biden has agreed to since taking office, in an aggressive attempt to bring home Americans that the State Department has designated as wrongfully detained abroad.

But it is also likely to be another flash point in the debate about whether it is a good idea to release criminals convicted of significant crimes in exchange for the detained Americans. In April, Mr. Biden agreed to swap Konstantin Yaroshenko, a Russian pilot, for Trevor Reed, an American held in Russia since 2019.

Mr. Biden has authorized officials to release Viktor Bout, who is known as the “Merchant of Death” and is serving a 25-year prison sentence for conspiring to sell weapons, in exchange for detained Americans Paul N. Whelan, a businessman, and Brittney Griner, a professional basketball player. Officials have said that the Russian government has not said whether it will accept that deal.

In his statement, Mr. Biden said he is continuing to work for the release of other Americans.

“To all the families who are still suffering and separated from their loved ones who are wrongfully detained — know that we remain dedicated to securing their release,” he said.

The Americans who had been held in Venezuela included five members of a group known as the “Citgo 6.” They were executives of the Citgo oil refining company who were detained more than four years ago. One member of the group was released in March after a team of Americans from Mr. Biden’s administration flew to Venezuela, officials said.

Two other Americans — Mr. Heath, who was detained in 2020, and Mr. Khan, who was detained at the beginning of this year — were also among those released by Venezuela on Saturday.

Asked whether the release of the Venezuelan drug smugglers would prompt Mr. Maduro to detain more Americans, the senior administration official said he hoped the Venezuelan president and others would realize that the president’s decision was a “rare” action that is not likely to be repeated often.

In Iran, it was unclear what had prompted the release of the Namazis.

“We’ve been working on a furlough for years, he would be eligible for furlough after he served more than half his term. This has been long coming,” said Jared Genser, the pro bono lawyer for the Namazi family. “We are not there yet, we are not going to rest until all the Namazis are able to return to the U.S. and their long nightmare finally comes to an end.”

Mr. Genser said the younger Mr. Namazi’s furlough, while renewable, lasts for just seven days. “He still needs to be able to leave Iran and return to the United States,” Mr. Genser said. “We hope and pray that will happen soon, but there has been no agreement between the U.S. and Iran to release all the American hostages.”

António Guterres, secretary general of the United Nations, said in a statement on Saturday that he was grateful that the senior Mr. Namazi, a former senior official for UNICEF, was permitted to leave Iran for medical treatment abroad following Mr. Guterres’s appeal to President Ebrahim Raisi of Iran.

Mr. Namazi is scheduled to have an operation on Monday for blockage in one of the main arteries in his brain, according to Mr. Genser.

“We will continue to engage with the Iranian authorities on a range of important issues, including the regional situation, sustainable development and the promotion and protection of human rights,” said a U.N. spokesman, Stéphane Dujarric, in a statement.

Iran’s decision to show leniency to the Namazis comes amid nationwide protests against the government that have gone on for two weeks and show no sign of abating. Iran had resisted for years appeals to release the Namazis from the U.N. and from international activists, human rights groups and other countries.

On Saturday, antigovernment protests continued across Iran, with crowds chanting for an end to the Islamic Republic’s rule, according to videos posted on social media. Thousands of students staged demonstrations at university campuses across the country demanding the release of their jailed classmates. Iranians in the diaspora on Saturday held large protests in over 100 cities around the world in solidarity with the people of Iran and the 22-year-old woman, Mahsa Amini, whose death in custody of morality police had sparked the protests.

Michael D. Shearreported from Washington and Farnaz Fassihi from New York. Michael Crowley contributed reporting from Washington.

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