Guayaquil, Ecuador, September 23, 2021 (venezuelanalysis.com) Rome's Court of Appeals rejected Venezuela's request to extradite former Oil Minister Rafael Ramrez, who faces corruption charges allegedly committed during his 12-year tenure.
According to Ramrez's lawyer, Roberto De Vita, the court found he "needed international protection given the violation of human rights in Venezuela." The ruling was taken on September 14 but published six days later.
The decision overruled a previous favorable opinion for Ramrez's extradition by the Rome Appeals Court Attorney General, Roberto Cavallone. In early July, the Italian prosecutor argued that there were "no elements to indicate that the pending judicial process amounts to persecution for political reasons [or that] the procedure will not respect the accused's fundamental rights."
However, Ramrez's lawyers called on the Italian authorities to reject Cavallone's recommendation on the grounds that the former minister would face "political persecution" if sent back to Venezuela.
For his part, the former oil czar said that the sentence was "firm" and "could not be appealed." In a statement published on Twitter, the ex-minister, who also headed state oil company PDVSA, added that the Italian court based its decision on the "refugee status" given to him in July.
Ramrez went on to say that his defense was backed up by a recent report from the United Nations (UN) Human Rights Council's fact-finding mission which reiterated alleged "human rights violations" in the Caribbean country. Released on September 16, the document "denounces the complicit role played by the judiciary and Venezuela's attorney general's office in serious human rights violations that constitute crimes against humanity," he wrote.
The Venezuelan government could appeal to Italy's highest Court of Cassation, but the South American country's authorities have yet to react or announce further legal steps.
Ramrez served as Venezuela's oil minister from 2002 to 2014 and as PDVSA president between 2004 and 2014, under the Hugo Chvez and Nicols Maduro governments. After his long tenure at the helm of the oil industry, he became economy vice president and ambassador to the United Nations until his resignation in December 2017.
Soon after, Venezuelan Attorney General Tarek William Saab launched an investigation against Ramrez for billionaire corruption and fraudulent contracting schemes that resulted in significant losses for the oil sector, the country's main source of revenue.
The 58-year-old engineer was charged with graft, forging an auction process, and criminal association, but he escaped arrest by fleeing to Italy. Following the issuance of an Interpol Red Alert in January 2018, the Venezuelan Supreme Court (TSJ) formally requested the former minister's extradition in July 2020, vowing that Ramrez would be tried "with all the adequate guarantees."
The probe against the former oil minister links him to the siphoning of 4.2 billion worth of Venezuelan state oil funds through a bank in Andorra. Alleged associates Diego Salazar, Ramrez's cousin, and Jorge Enrique Luongo were arrested in December 2017 on money laundering and embezzlement charges.
Additionally, the ex-oil czar was accused of facilitating an embezzlement scheme in PDVSA's Austria-based bureau for market research, costing the country roughly US $4.8 billion between 2009 and 2015.
Venezuela's attorney general likewise revealed that PDVSA paid $1.3 billion to Petrosaudi Oil Services for natural gas drilling and extraction operations at the offshore Mariscal Sucre field, but works were inactive over 60 percent of the time in a seven-year period.
Ramrez, also once part of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) leadership, has accused the Maduro government of "betraying" Hugo Chvez's legacy and "bankrupting" the oil industry. The former head of PDVSA claims to have "confidential information" about alleged corrupt dealings involving high-level officials.
Venezuela's attorney general has spearheaded a multipronged investigation to tackle corruption from its state institutions, focusing on the oil sector, which has been additionally hit by crushing US-led sanctions since 2017.
Edited by Ricardo Vaz from Mrida.