A federal judge in Miami on Friday dismissed an attempt by a close ally of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro to defend himself from criminal charges, ruling that Alex Saab is not entitled to immunity. delivered in the US and had to appear in court on charges of money laundering.
The legal battle over Saab’s purported diplomatic status is being closely watched by Maduro’s socialist government, which has demanded the release of the Colombian businessman as part of negotiations. Sneaky talks with the Biden administration.
The United States in 2019 stopped recognizing Maduro as the legitimate leader of Venezuela, and Judge Robert Scola cited that decision as the basis for rejecting Saab’s offer to dismiss the criminal charges.
He also sided with prosecutors, who have cast doubt on the legitimacy of some official Venezuelan information that Saab relies on to bolster his claim of diplomatic status – and put question why he never mentioned his purported diplomatic status in several secret meetings with agents of the US Drug Enforcement Administration.
“Evidence shows that the Maduro regime and its accomplices fabricated documents to cover up Saab Moran in a diplomatic outfit that didn’t suit him, all in an attempt to take advantage of the law of diplomatic immunity and prevent his extradition to the United States,” the judge report wrote.
For more than two years, almost from the time of his arrest in Africa at the behest of the United States, Saab has maintained that he is a Venezuelan diplomat targeted for his work helping his adopted homeland avoid US economic sanctions.
Saab, 51, was pulled from his private jet in the summer of 2020 while stopping in Cape Verde on his way to Iran, where he was negotiating oil deals on behalf of Maduro’s government.
He was charged with conspiracy to launder money in connection with a bribery scheme that allegedly siphoned off $350 million through state contracts to build affordable housing for the Venezuelan government.
At Tuesday’s hearing, Scola pressed Saab’s legal team of seven lawyers to explain why he should leave the position held by the US State Department, saying Saab was not entitled to immunity. except diplomacy in the United States
The United States has since 2019 recognized opposition lawmaker Juan Guaido as Venezuela’s legitimate leader – a position repeatedly affirmed by US federal courts in numerous lawsuits filed by unpaid creditors. The team sought to seize the country’s offshore oil assets.
Scola likened Saab’s situation to a hypothetical situation in which former President Donald Trump – who had not yet realized his defeat in the 2020 election – issued a passport with the alleged stamp of the US government. Ky.
“It is clear that the United States does not recognize the Maduro regime as representing the official government of Venezuela,” Scola wrote. “Accordingly, any request for diplomatic immunity asserted by a representative of the Maduro regime must also be considered illegitimate.”
Saab’s lawyers presented what they say are diplomatic notes exchanged between Iran and Venezuela discussing Saab’s third trip to Iran. At the time of his arrest, Saab was also carrying a sealed letter from Maduro addressed to Iran’s supreme leader seeking his full support for a planned deal to import Iran. fuel exports at a time when gas pipelines are long in Venezuela.
“It’s like you kidnap someone, bring them to your house and then charge them with trespassing,” Lee Casey, one of Saab’s attorneys, said at the hearing this week.
But prosecutors have produced evidence that some of the documents supporting Saab’s claims – among them a Venezuelan diplomatic passport and a presidential decree published in the Official Gazette of Venezuela – may be fake.
Assistant US Attorney Alex Kramer said during the proceedings: “He’s a courier at best. “But being a courier for diplomatic letters doesn’t make a person a diplomat.”
Scola seemed to agree. He also discovered that even if Saab was a duly appointed special envoy, he would not enjoy transit immunity under international treaties and conventions that only protect members of the permanent diplomatic missions. Doing so, he said, would automatically make the defendant “inviolable” in the US as long as he has a free pass from another country that makes him head of a temporary mission. .
“The immunization of heads of temporary missions in the manner proposed by Saab Moran opens the door for the abuse of diplomatic immunity in a manner that could seriously hinder cross-border law enforcement activities”.
Saab was initially seen as a feat by the Trump administration, which made no secret of its efforts to topple Maduro, who is wanted on drug trafficking charges in the US.
But the criminal case has become a major highlight as the Biden administration seeks to improve relations with Venezuela and tap new oil supplies to offset a drop in exports from Russia following sanctions on Russia. Invasion of Ukraine
The tug-of-war was further complicated by the revelation that Saab, prior to his arrest, was registered by the DEA as an informant and had provided the agency with information about corruption within Maduro’s inner circle.
For months, it was speculated that Saab might be released as part of some kind of prisoner exchange for some of the Americans held in Caracas. A similar deal for two of Maduro’s grandsons convicted in New York on drug charges secured the October release of seven other Americans detained in Venezuela. The Biden administration has insisted that no such negotiations are taking place.