Maduro ally claims diplomatic status to avoid US charges

Apr 6, 2022, 11:20 AM | Updated: 11:54 am
Demonstrators shout "Free Alex Saab," as they demand the release of Colombian businessman Alex Saab...

Demonstrators shout "Free Alex Saab," as they demand the release of Colombian businessman Alex Saab who has been extradited to the U.S., during a protest in the Petare neighborhood of Caracas, Venezuela, Monday, April 4, 2022. Saab, a close ally of Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro, who prosecutors in the U.S. believe could be the most significant witness ever about corruption in the South American country, was extradited from Cabo Verde and is now in U.S. custody. (AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos)

(AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos)

MIAMI (AP) — An attorney for a businessman enriched by Venezuela’s government argued in federal court Wednesday that his client’s continued detention on corruption charges sets a dangerous precedent that could endanger the free movement of U.S. officials around the world.

The hearing held before an appeals panel in Miami centered around the politically thorny issue of whether Alex Saab is a Venezuelan diplomat and entitled to immunity from prosecution under U.S. law and numerous international treaties.

Saab’s attorneys have argued that he was traveling to Iran as a duly appointed special envoy of President Nicolás Maduro’s socialist government when he was arrested on a U.S. warrant nearly two years ago in Cape Verde during a refueling stop. They’ve produced letters to Iran’s supreme leader by Maduro’s foreign minister and a diplomatic note from Iran’s Embassy in Caracas backing their claim.

But prosecutors have cast doubt on the authenticity of those documents and point out that the State Department has never accepted Saab’s supposed status as diplomat. Indeed, in 2019, the U.S. recognized opposition leader Juan Guaidó as Venezuela’s legitimate leader, although more recently the Biden administration has taken steps to engage with Maduro, who has clung to power in the face of severe U.S. oil sanctions.

“This is a ruse set up by a rogue nation to evade criminal prosecution,” Jeremy Sanders, an attorney with the Justice Department in Washington, said during the hearing.

Saab’s attorney, David Rivkin, rejected that argument as a “canard” and an “utterly dangerous” precedent that undermines the very essence of international diplomacy. He said even officials from states unfriendly to the U.S., such as Venezuela, North Korea and Iran, have the right to move freely among third countries in the pursuit of goals tasked by their governments.

“More than just the fate of one man is at stake here,” said Rivkin.

The three judge panel gave no clear indication of whether it will decide Saab’s diplomatic status now or allow the lower court to sort through the opposing claims and issue its findings first.

U.S. officials maintain that Saab, who was not present for Wednesday’s hearing, reaped huge windfall profits from dodgy contracts to import food while millions in the South American nation starved. He was indicted in Miami in 2019 on money laundering charges connected to an alleged bribery scheme that pocketed more than $350 million from a low-income housing project for the Venezuelan government.

Maduro’s officials consider Saab a “kidnapping” victim and have tried to rally popular support in Venezuela to demand his freedom. At the time of his arrest, they said he was on a humanitarian mission to Iran to negotiate the purchase of food, which has become more difficult to import as U.S. sanctions have cut off Venezuela’s ties to the western financial system, exacerbating an economic collapse marked by years of hyperinflation, electricity blackouts and widespread shortages.

But as the case has progressed, it has emerged that in the years prior to his arrest Saab revealed to U.S. officials information about bribes he paid to top officials in Maduro’s government.

More details of that cooperation with U.S. law enforcement surfaced Wednesday as Judge Robert Scola, who is overseeing the criminal case, unsealed a procedural order he issued a year ago during Saab’s fight to prevent extradition to the U.S.

According to the newly unsealed record, Saab and his attorneys met with agents from the Drug Enforcement Administration and Federal Bureau of Investigation in Colombia’s capital beginning in 2016. On June 2, 2018, he admitted to agents that he had paid bribes to government officials in exchange for the housing contracts. Less than a month later, on June 27, he became an “active law enforcement source,” meaning he likely took direction from U.S. officials. He also agreed to surrender profits obtained as part of the dirty dealings.

In an April 2019 meeting with U.S. prosecutors in Europe, the two sides discussed having Saab would surrender on May 30 of that year, according to a summary of events contained in Scola’s five-page order.

But the deadline passed and Saab never showed up, having ended all communication with U.S. officials, according to the court record. He was indicted a few weeks later.

___

Follow Goodman on Twitter: @APJoshGoodman

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

AP

This image released by Bleecker Street shows Freida Pinto, left, and Zawe Ashton in a scene from "M...
Associated Press

‘Minions’ set box office on fire with $108.5 million debut

Families went bananas for Minions this weekend at the movie theater. ” Minions: The Rise of Gru ” brought in an estimated $108.5 million in ticket sales from 4,391 screens in North America, Universal Pictures said Sunday. By the end of the Monday’s July Fourth holiday, it will likely have earned over $127.9 million. The […]
21 hours ago
Associated Press

Firefighters battle fresh wildfire in Northern California

BRIDGEPORT, Calif. (AP) — Firefighters in Northern California were battling a fresh wildfire that broke out Monday east of Sacramento. The fire burning in Amador County quickly spread to 959 acres (388 hectares) as of just after 7 p.m. Monday, according to Cal Fire. The fire agency had said earlier on Twitter that the fire […]
21 hours ago
FILE - Huntington Mayor Steve Williams, left, and lawyer Rusty Webb enter the Robert C. Byrd United...
Associated Press

US judge finds for 3 drug distributors in WVa opioid lawsuit

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — A federal judge on Monday ruled in favor of three major U.S. drug distributors in a landmark lawsuit that accused them of causing a health crisis by distributing 81 million pills over eight years in one West Virginia county ravaged by opioid addiction. The verdict came nearly a year after closing […]
21 hours ago
Mynor Cardona and Ufemia Tomas, parents of Yenifer Yulisa Cardona Tomás, smile as they talk with h...
Associated Press

A migrant survivor of the trailer: ‘They couldn’t breathe’

GUATEMALA CITY (AP) — The advice of a friend to stay near the door of a semi-trailer may have saved Yenifer Yulisa Cardona Tomás from the deadly end that 53 other migrants met when the truck was abandoned last week on the outskirts of San Antonio. Cardona Tomás, a 20-year-old from Guatemala’s capital, said in […]
21 hours ago
Associated Press

San Francisco property owners banned from parking car on it

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — A San Francisco couple that parked their car for decades on a paved part of their property in front of their home has been banned from doing so unless they want to risk steep fines. KGO-TV reported Monday that city officials sent a letter to Judy and Ed Craine telling them […]
21 hours ago
Associated Press

San Francisco property owners banned from parking car on it

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — A San Francisco couple that parked their car for decades on a paved part of their property in front of their home has been banned from doing so unless they want to risk steep fines. KGO-TV reported Monday that city officials sent a letter to Judy and Ed Craine telling them […]
21 hours ago

Sponsored Articles

...
Day & Night Air Conditioning, Heating and Plumbing

Most plumbing problems can be fixed with regular maintenance

Instead of waiting for a problem to happen, experts suggest getting a head start on your plumbing maintenance.
...
Day & Night Air

Tips to lower your energy bill in the Arizona heat

Does your summer electric bill make you groan? Are you looking for effective ways to reduce your bill?
...
Christina O’Haver

BE FAST to spot a stroke

Every 40 seconds—that’s how often someone has a stroke in the United States. It’s the fifth leading cause of death among Americans, with someone dying of a stroke every 3.5 minutes.
Maduro ally claims diplomatic status to avoid US charges