A Colombian businessman was carrying a letter from Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro crediting him to Iran’s supreme leader when he was arrested on a US arrest warrant last year, according to a new court filed in a corruption case of a political nature exacerbating tensions between the United States and the South American Nation.
Lawyers for Alex Saab filed the case Thursday in Miami, Fla., In US federal court, just hours after prosecutors for the African nation of Cape Verde said they granted Colombian house arrest to 49 years old as he fought extradition to the United States to face money laundering charges.
U.S. officials believe Saab holds many secrets about how Maduro, his family and key associates allegedly siphoned off millions of dollars from government contracts amid rampant hunger in the oil-rich country. He was arrested last June when his plane made a refueling stop on a flight to Tehran, where he was reportedly sent to negotiate deals to exchange Venezuelan gold for Iranian oil.
The Trump administration has made Saab’s extradition a top priority, even at one point sending a Navy warship to the African archipelago to keep an eye on the captive and discourage any plans by Venezuela to try. to get him out of prison.
In Caracas, Saab’s pursuit is seen as a veiled attempt at regime change and is likely to complicate any effort by Maduro to seek a new start with the Biden administration, as is the continued imprisonment of several Americans in Caracas, including six Venezuelan-American tankers. leaders and two former Green Berets caught in a failed raid seeking to capture Maduro.
Lawyers for the Baker & Hostetler law firm have filed a motion to dismiss the US charges, arguing Saab was immune from prosecution due to the many diplomatic posts he has held for Maduro’s government since 2018.
As evidence, they presented letters signed by Maduro’s foreign minister, allegedly accrediting Saab as special envoy for humanitarian aid, as well as a resolution – signed last month – appointing him as the alternate permanent representative of the Venezuela to the African Union in Ethiopia.
There is also a letter, addressed to Iranian Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in which Maduro asked the Iranian Supreme Leader to help Saab secure an “urgent” shipment of five million barrels of gasoline following the arrival of several previous expeditions from Iran. Another apparent diplomatic note, from the Iranian embassy in Caracas, referred to Saab’s upcoming “official” visit and a request for delivery of Iranian-made drugs.
“The arrival of Iranian oil ships marked a historic milestone in our bilateral relations and firmly and decisively sealed the love of the Venezuelan people for Iran,” Maduro wrote in the June 11 letter, which Saab was supposed to wear when it stops. “Venezuela’s collective emotion when the Iranian-flagged ships arrived in our jurisdictional waters is a sign of a victory in the relations between sovereign states, never subject to any empire.
The Trump administration recognized the leader of the opposition in 2019 Juan Guaido as the legitimate leader of Venezuela, closed the United States Embassy in Caracas and imposed severe oil sanctions on the socialist government of Maduro.
Lawyers for Saab have argued that the US campaign against Maduro, who himself has been indicted by New York federal court on drug trafficking charges, cannot replace international law.
“The irregular diplomatic relations between the United States and Venezuela do not allow the court to ignore the Vienna Convention,” Saab’s lawyers said in the case. Whatever opinion they think of Mr. Maduro, the United States continues to recognize Venezuela as a sovereign member of the community of nations, and the law of nations obliges it to respect the sovereign rights of that state. including sending diplomatic emissaries to any other country in the world. “
Miami federal prosecutors indicted Saab in 2019 with money laundering charges related to an alleged corruption scheme that pocketed more than $ 350 million from a low-rent housing project for the Venezuelan government that failed was never built.
The dismissal motion cited the late 1980s prosecution of former Panamanian strongman Manuel Noriega to argue that Saab should be allowed to present a defense even before extradition. Normally, defendants who are considered fugitives do not have the right to be heard in federal court.
Saab attorneys also challenged the jurisdiction of the U.S. court, saying Saab had not traveled to the United States for nearly three decades and that the proceeds of the alleged scheme had been deposited into Miami bank accounts owned by co – unidentified conspirators.
“The United States has only the slightest suspected connection to the alleged underlying crimes,” the file said.
The Venezuelan government has vehemently opposed Saab’s pursuit as a veiled attempt at regime change by the Trump administration and ordered it to resist extradition at all costs.
“We have reasonable grounds to believe that if you are extradited to the United States, you will be pressured, whether legitimately or not, to disclose this information and thus put our country in great danger,” read a signed letter. by the Minister of Foreign Affairs. Jorge Arreaza who was part of Thursday’s dossier.
A Cape Verde court this month ruled that Saab could be extradited to the United States, although the island nation’s Supreme Court must give its final approval.
Island nation prosecutors said on Thursday they were moving Saab under house arrest while the appeal process unfolded because he had already been detained longer than the maximum allowed.
Saab’s legal team in the extradition case, led by Spanish lawyer Baltasar Garzon, celebrated the decision as long overdue, saying he had spent seven months in jail under “inhumane conditions” that exacerbated his health problems. Under house arrest, Saab can now receive appropriate treatment, the lawyers said in a statement.
“We will continue to appeal and demand that Alex Saab’s diplomatic immunity be respected and that his extradition to the United States be dismissed as unfounded as it is clearly a case of political persecution at the pursuit of a broader objective, in this case the government of Venezuela ”. Garzon said in a statement.