Demonstrators gathered in the Venezuelan capital of Caracas on December 16 to express their support for the detained businessman Alex Saab, who is facing accusations of money laundering [Matias Delacroix/AP Photo]
A judge in the United States has denied a request for diplomatic immunity from Alex Saab, a close associate of the Venezuelan left-wing leader, Nicolas Maduro. The arraignment for Saab, who is accused of money laundering, has been set.
Attorneys for Saab, a 51-year-old from Colombia, contend that the allegations against him should be dropped, as he was acting as an envoy of the Venezuelan government.
On Friday, Judge Robert Scola in Miami, Florida, countered any arguments presented in a 15-page ruling. The ruling stated that since the US does not accept the validity of Maduro’s second term, the court is unable to acknowledge Saab as an agent of the government.
Scola asserted that Maduro’s rule has been labeled as “illegitimate” and, thus, any diplomatic immunity claimed by someone representing the Maduro regime must also be considered invalid.
After a protracted legal dispute that has caused a lot of tension between the US and Venezuela, Judge ruled that a single count of conspiracy to commit money laundering was applicable against Alex Saab, which carries a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison.
The US Department of Justice charged Saab with taking part in a bribery plot that spanned from 2011 to 2015. Prosecutors had asked that seven supplementary indictments be dropped in order to fulfil the conditions of Saab’s extradition.
Prosecutors claim that Saab and his comrades purportedly obtained contracts from the Venezuelan government for the production of inexpensive housing, yet instead diverted $350m away from the nation to benefit from advantageous exchange rates.
Neil Schuster, legal counsel for Alex Saab, pleaded “not guilty” at a high-profile corruption trial in 2021. He referred to Saab, who is a diplomat for the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, as such.
On June 12, 2020, Saab was taken into custody while the plane he was on had stopped in Cabo Verde, an archipelago near Africa’s Atlantic coast, to get more fuel. The US then extradited him on October 16 of that same year.
Maintaining that the US is waging an “economic war” on Venezuela, Maduro and his allies have depicted the arrest of Saab as part of this.
At a book fair in Caracas, Maduro presented a series of letters written by Saab, who had been apprehended and subjected to torture for aiding Venezuela, just a month prior.
Saab’s defence argued in the hearings this week that the arrest was an abduction.
Lawyer Lee Casey compared the situation to a hypothetical kidnapping of someone, bringing them to the perpetrator’s house, and then accusing the victim of trespassing.
The Venezuelan government has vouched for Saab’s story, stating that he had been travelling to Iran to discuss a possible oil agreement when he was apprehended.
Saab’s legal team claims that this would have been his third mission to Iran in the service of Venezuela.
As a means of strengthening the case for diplomatic protection for Saab, his attorneys introduced documents purporting to be diplomatic communications between Iran and Venezuela to the U.S. court.
Saab’s defense has asserted that he was in possession of an envelope from Nicolas Maduro, which contained a request for Iran’s leaders to sign off on a plan to provide fuel to Venezuela. The country was then struggling with a fuel shortage, with the cost of a gallon of gasoline reaching ten dollars.
The US government prosecutors, however, have raised concerns regarding the veracity of the documents presented, including a Venezuelan diplomatic passport and an executive order issued in the Venezuelan Official Gazette.
It is alleged that some of the documents may have been fabricated.
Alex Kramer, an assistant US Attorney, declared that “the individual in question, at most, was a messenger. Nevertheless, merely delivering diplomatic correspondence does not make one a diplomat.”
In spite of Saab’s lawyers asserting that he is a committed Venezuelan, court documents unveiled that Saab may have been a “active law enforcement source” for the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), providing intelligence regarding Maduro’s government.
The defence of Saab asserted that those in Maduro’s government were conscious of his interactions with the DEA. Allegedly, personnel of the American government asked Saab to turn himself in willingly, cautioning that failing to do so could lead to criminal accusations.
On Friday, a judge in the USA declined Saab’s plea for diplomatic immunity, due to a disagreement concerning the presidential election in Venezuela in 2018.
Nicolas Maduro was re-elected for a second six-year term despite a large amount of controversy concerning the election, with two of the most favored opposition candidates unable to participate and the MUD (Democratic Unity Roundtable) deciding to boycott the vote.
In January 2019, Maduro was inaugurated. This prompted Juan Guaido, the leader of Venezuela’s National Assembly at the time, to proclaim himself the nation’s provisional leader in opposition to Maduro’s authority. This announcement was made in spite of Maduro’s rule.
The US decided to recognize Juan Guaido’s presidency as legitimate instead of Nicolas Maduro’s when they were presented with the situation of having two Venezuelan presidents. The Trump administration at the time, which was Republican, declared Maduro’s re-election as “unlawful” and referred to the results of the 2018 election as a “descent into authoritarianism”.
The apprehension of Saab has been a contributing factor to the strained diplomatic ties between the US and Venezuela. After Saab’s extradition to the US, the Maduro administration stated its intent to halt talks with the anti-government opposition, depicting the action as “a manifestation of our firmest objection to the vicious attack” inflicted upon Saab.
On Thursday, Venezuelan opposition groups cast their ballots to take away the power of Guaido’s provisional government as the country readies for presidential elections set for 2024. An additional vote is needed to make this solution official.
Joe Biden’s presidency has made evident its intentions to better ties between the US and the Venezuelan government of Maduro, with the sanctioning of oil being loosened after an agreement was formed between the governing body and the opposition in November.
Lula da Silva, who is the newly elected President of Brazil, has declared that diplomatic ties with the Venezuelan government of Maduro are to be re-established in the upcoming year.
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