Citgo sign Photo: Shutterstock.com

Six American oil executives held in an overcrowded Venezuelan prison for 18 months finally got their day in court only to see their hopes of being released dashed.

During a preliminary hearing, Judge Rosvelin Gil accepted prosecutor Aramay Terán’s request that the six employees of Houston-based Citgo stand trial on corruption charges. No date for the trial to begin was set.

The decision Friday was a painful blow to the families of the men who were initially heartened by news their loved ones would have the chance to profess their innocence in court after the judge canceled 15 previous hearings giving little reason.

“After more than one and a half years of delayed due process, today’s preliminary hearing was a sad spectacle and a travesty of justice,” the family of Tomeu Vadell, Citgo’s vice president of refining, said in a statement.

“Venezuela is depriving an innocent man, a deeply loved husband and father of his freedom,” they added. “We will continue to demand his immediate and unconditional release.”

The families of the group dubbed the Citgo 6 — five of them, like Vadell, U.S. citizens and all with deep roots in Texas and Louisiana — complain the men are being held in inhumane conditions, sharing overcrowded basement cells in a military counterintelligence prison and losing weight in a country plagued by food shortages.

Their travail began the weekend before Thanksgiving 2017 when the six executives got a call from the head of Venezuela’s government-run oil giant PDVSA summoning them to Caracas for a last-minute budget meeting.

Once there, armed and masked security agents burst into a conference room and arrested them on embezzlement charges stemming from a never-executed proposal to refinance $4 billion in Citgo bonds by offering a 50 percent stake in the company as collateral. Maduro himself accused them of “treason,” though they have not been charged with that crime

The case has largely slipped from view as Venezuela descended into turmoil and relations between the U.S. and Venezuela have been torn apart by the Trump administration’s strong backing for opposition leader Juan Guaidó in his battle to oust Maduro.

Vadell hasn’t been able to speak to his family since March after guards inexplicably tightened restrictions at the prison where some of Maduro’s biggest political opponents are being held.

Meanwhile, their employer, Citgo, has emerged as a major prize in the battle for power. Guaidó in February named a new board to manage Citgo, the eight largest refiner in the U.S. and which until the takeover had been a subsidiary of Venezuelan oil giant PDVSA.

Despite the change in leadership at Citgo, families of the jailed men complain they are still being left to fend for themselves with scant support from the company, Guaidó or the U.S. government.