Caracas, Venezuela

Venezuela on Tuesday announced the arrest of ex-petroleum minister Tareck El Aissami and dozens of others in a probe into an alleged multi-million dollar crypto fraud at state oil company PDVSA.El Aissami, formerly a key ally of President Nicolas Maduro and his late predecessor Hugo Chavez, resigned from his ministerial post a year ago and disappeared from public life.

Attorney General Tarek William Saab announced the arrest of El Aissami, who was also Maduro’s vice-president from 2017 to 2018, and showed reporters a photo of the 49-year-old in handcuffs.

“We have managed to reveal the direct participation” of El Aissami in the alleged crimes, said Saab, adding he would be charged “in the next few hours.”

Also arrested were former economy minister Simon Alejandro Zerpa and businessman Samark Lopez, who is wanted by authorities in the United States.

The three face charges of treason and appropriation or diversion of public funds, influence peddling, money laundering and criminal association — “a plurality of crimes that will culminate in an exemplary sanction,” vowed the prosecutor.

Dozens of officials, including top managers of Venezuela’s Sunacrip crypto regulator were also detained, said Saab, and 17 other warrants are outstanding.

Critics of the graft probe have labeled it a political purge by Maduro, who will seek reelection to a third presidential term in July elections even as he stands accused of using state institutions to sideline political challengers.


– ‘Criminally managed funds’ –


The sale of crude through cryptocurrency networks was a scheme by Caracas to circumvent US sanctions against Venezuela, which has the largest oil reserves in the world.

According to witnesses quoted by Saab Tuesday, the suspects executed crude “sales below market value, arbitrarily and criminally managed funds obtained from the sale of products, and charged commissions” and bribes.

The latest arrests add to 61 people taken into custody last year in the investigation, including PDVSA executives and officials involved in Venezuela’s oil-backed cryptocurrency, the Petro, launched in 2018 but abandoned in January.

At least two detainees have died, one from liver disease and another by apparent suicide — into which rights groups have demanded an independent investigation.

The Petro currency had been labeled a scam by some risk rating bodies.

Its demise also led to a crackdown on bitcoin mining operations in the country where cryptocurrencies have been a hugely popular guard against hyperinflation and the deflation of the bolivar.

Venezuela once produced more than three million barrels a day, but that has dropped to less than one million barrels following years of mismanagement and crushing sanctions.

Since 2017, Venezuela’s oil industry has been the target of more than 25 corruption investigations.

“We will completely cleanse PDVSA of all these mechanisms, all this barbarism, all these people who steal money from the people,” Maduro said last year.




© Agence France-Presse


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