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Dec 21, 2023 | In The News


LOS ANGELES (KABC) — A Los Angeles County public defender is among 10 jailed Americans who have been released from custody in Venezuela in a prisoner exchange that freed a close ally of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro and involves the extradition of a fugitive defense contractor who is at the center of a massive Pentagon bribery scandal.

Eyvin Hernandez was arrested in March 2022 after he tried to help a friend resolve a passport issue at the Colombia-Venezuela border, where he was accused of criminal association and conspiracy.

“He was asked to pay a bribe to cross into Venezuela and was then accused of being a spy,” Rep. Young Kim, R-Orange County, said in July.

Hernandez and five other freed Americans landed at Kelly Field in San Antonio, Texas Wednesday evening, while the four others were returning to U.S. soil on a separate flight.

In a media interview, Hernandez expressed thanks to the Biden administration for negotiating the transfer and to his family for their support during the ordeal.

“I’m incredibly grateful to my family, to my friends, to President Biden for getting me home, for getting all of us home,” he said.

“All you think about when you’re in prison is how you didn’t appreciate being free, while you were free.”

“There’s no way to understand what it’s like to be in prison unjustly and not have any way out. It’s been a long time coming. It was probably the most difficult thing I’ve been through. It was a struggle every day. But I had incredible support from family and friends. I felt a lot of love when I was in prison.”

“Once again I want to thank President Biden. I know he made a difficult decision that will have a lot of pressure on him on Capitol Hill. But he got us home and we’re with our families, so we’re incredibly grateful, all of us.”

Hernandez said he and the other Americans were not held in a prison, but in makeshift concrete cells that were set up in the garage of Venezuela’s intelligence agency. He said authorities told him he was being charged with espionage, terrorism and conspiracy, charges he knew weren’t true but which he was powerless to fight.

He was held for 630 days, he said.

The prisoner exchange, announced by the Biden administration Wednesday, represents the U.S. government’s boldest bid to improve relations with the major oil-producing nation and extract concessions from the self-proclaimed socialist leader. The largest release of American prisoners in Venezuela’s history comes weeks after the Biden administration agreed to suspend some sanctions, following a commitment by Maduro and an opposition faction to work toward free and fair conditions for the 2024 presidential election.

A bipartisan resolution in Congress, led by Rep. Sydney Kamlager-Dove, had called for Hernandez’s release.

“Eyvin Hernandez is my constituent. He is from Los Angeles. He is an angel from the city of angels, and it is time that we bring Eyvin home,” Kamlager-Dove said at a press conference in front of the U.S. Capitol building in July.

The release of Alex Saab, a Maduro associate who was arrested on a U.S. warrant for money laundering in 2020 and long was regarded as a criminal trophy by Washington, is a significant concession to the Venezuelan leader. U.S. officials said the decision to grant him clemency was difficult but essential in order to bring home jailed Americans, a core administrative objective that in recent years has resulted in the release of criminals who once were seen as untradeable.

The deal also guarantees the release of Hernandez and nine other Americans who had been held in Venezuela, including six who have been designated by the U.S. government as wrongfully detained.

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

Venezuela’s government described Saab as “a victim” of “illegal detention” and characterized his release as a “symbol of victory” achieved through the country’s “peaceful diplomacy.” The government, in a statement, urged the U.S. to remove all sanctions against Venezuela.

The agreement also will result in the extradition of Leonard Glenn Francis, the Malaysian owner of a ship-servicing company in Southeast Asia who is the central character in one of the largest bribery scandals in Pentagon history.

The 6-foot-3 Francis, who at one time weighed 350 pounds and was nicknamed “Fat Leonard,” was arrested in a San Diego hotel nearly a decade ago as part of a federal sting operation. Investigators say he and his company, Glenn Defense Marine Asia, bilked the Navy out of more than $35 million by buying off dozens of top-ranking Navy officers with booze, sex, lavish parties and other gifts.

The case, which delved into salacious details about service members cheating on their wives and seeking out prostitutes, was an embarrassment to the Pentagon.

Three weeks before he faced sentencing in September 2022, Francis made an escape as stunning and brazen as the case itself as he snipped off his ankle monitor and disappeared. He was arrested by Venezuelan police attempting to board a flight at an airport outside Caracas, and has been in custody since.

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