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Dec 20, 2023 | In The News

OC Register

LOS ANGELES — Eyvin Hernandez, a Los Angeles County public defender and South Bay native who had been imprisoned in Venezuela since March 2022, was on his way back to the United States Wednesday as part of a sweeping prisoner-exchange announced by the White House.

President Joe Biden said a total of 10 Americans who had been detained in Venezuela were released as part of the deal, including six “wrongfully detained Americans.”

“These individuals have lost far too much precious time with their loved ones, and their families have suffered every day in their absence,” Biden said in a statement. “I am grateful that their ordeal is finally over, and that these families are being made whole once more.”

Hernandez was among those released in the exchange, which also included the extradition of convicted military contractor Leonard Glenn “Fat Leonard” Francis, who escaped home arrest in San Diego last year after pleading guilty to bribing Navy officials.

“On behalf of Eyvin Hernandez, his family and friends, we are happy to confirm that he has been released by Venezuela and will shortly touch down on U.S. soil,” Hernandez’s family said in a statement Wednesday afternoon. “He has been wrongfully detained since March of 2022. For over 21 months, he has endured horrible conditions and abuse. We were notified this morning that Eyvin was on his way home — an early Christmas present for our family.

“Our first priority is to ensure that he gets the medical support he needs so that he can recover from his time in captivity. He will talk about his experience when he is ready. For now, we want to thank everyone who helped obtain Eyvin’s release.”

The family added, “Even as we celebrate Eyvin’s release, we remember all of the Americans who remain wrongfully detained abroad and we hold close to our hearts a wish that they are all returned to their families as soon as possible.”

Garrett Miller, president of the Los Angeles County Public Defenders Union, Local 148, said in a statement he was “thrilled that Eyvin will be coming home and that this ordeal is finally over.”

“I can’t even imagine how traumatizing this has been for Eyvin, and our union will do all it can to support him in the coming months,” Miller said. “Eyvin has been deeply missed by his fellow Local 148 members, and we can’t wait to see him again. I’m grateful to Eyvin’s family for their tireless advocacy and also want to thank Local 148 board member Drew Havens who worked alongside them advocating for Eyvin’s release.”

Hernandez, an L.A. County deputy public defender for 15 years, was on vacation in Colombia when he joined a friend on a trip to the Colombian-Venezuelan border to resolve a passport issue involving the friend’s stay in Venezuela.

At the border, Hernandez and his friend were intercepted by what has been described in various reports as either a paramilitary group, a gang or official Venezuelan forces. Hernandez and his friend were eventually turned over to Venezuelan security forces and jailed in a maximum security prison in Caracas.

Hernandez was accused of criminal association and conspiracy, which are punishable by up to 16 years in jail in Venezuela.

Over the past nearly two years, various public officials have sent letters to the White House urging the administration to secure Hernandez’s release. The county Board of Supervisors unanimously approved a motion last year asking the administration and other federal elected officials to work for his release. The Los Angeles City Council took similar action earlier this year.

Reps. Sydney Kamlager-Dove and Nanette Barragán, both D-Los Angeles, joined Rep. Young Kim, R-Orange County, and Joaquin Castro, D-Texas, introduced a resolution earlier this year calling on the Venezuelan “regime” to immediately release Hernandez.

In December 2022, L.A. Mayor Karen Bass joined Barragán and other congressional representatives in sending a joint letter to Biden, asking his administration to work to free Hernandez.

“I am so relieved and grateful Eyvin Hernandez is safe and returning home,” county Supervisor Janice Hahn said in a statement Wednesday. “I applaud the White House and the many U.S. diplomats that worked tirelessly to free Eyvin and the other Americans held prisoner in Venezuela. The L.A. County family never forgot Eyvin during these long 18 months and I cannot think of a better Christmas gift for his loved ones this year than his safe return.”

Supervisor Kathryn Barger added, “Mr. Hernandez was an innocent bystander caught up in a political power play by the Venezuelan government and has suffered tremendously. I want him and his family to know that our County and its resources stand by to help him recover from this terrible, unjust ordeal. His return is a reminder that we should keep fighting for what we know is right, and to not give up hope.”

Kamlager-Dove called his release “a miracle.”

“Words cannot express my joy at having this beloved member of our community here with us again,” she said in a statement. “My office will continue to support Eyvin and his family as he adjusts to life back home.”

Sen. Alex Padilla, D-California, said, “A public defender and a beloved member of his community, Eyvin’s absence brought angst and fear to his loved ones for far too long. I am proud to have fought relentlessly alongside Eyvin’s family, friends, federal lawmakers, and the State Department’s Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs to secure his release.”

Also among the Americans released Wednesday was Savoi Wright, who grew up in Oakland and earned a business degree at Loyola Marymount University.

In exchange for the return of Americans, the United States agreed to release Alex Saab, a close ally of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro. Saab had been awaiting trial on money laundering charges.

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