Monday, September 26, 2022

Maduro’s ally extradited to the United States on money laundering charges

MIAMI – A top fugitive close to Venezuela’s socialist government has been sent on a plane to the United States to face money laundering charges, a senior US official confirmed Saturday.

Alex Saab flew on a Justice Department chartered flight from Cape Verde, where he was arrested 16 months ago when he made a stopover en route to Iran for what Nicolas Maduro’s government later described as a diplomatic humanitarian mission.

The official made a condition that his name would not be announced. Earlier, several media outlets in Cape Verde also reported on his extradition, citing unnamed sources. Saab’s public relations firm said in an email that the Colombian businessman was taken away from his home without notifying his lawyers.

The arrival of Saab in the United States is bound to complicate relations between Washington and Caracas, possibly disrupting talks just begun between the Maduro government and the US-backed opposition in Mexico.

Last month, Maduro accused the US of “kidnapping” and “torturing” Saab, a Colombian businessman who prosecutors say made a fortune working on behalf of the socialist government, which is subject to harsh US sanctions.

US authorities have harassed Saab for years, believing it has many secrets about how Maduro, the president’s family and his closest aides siphoned off millions of dollars in government food and housing contracts amid widespread hunger in oil-rich Venezuela.

However, his defenders, including the Maduro government and allies Russia and Cuba, consider his arrest illegal and argue that Saab was a diplomatic envoy of the Venezuelan government and, as such, is immune from prosecution while on duty.

The argument was not convinced by the Cape Verdean Constitutional Court, which last month authorized his extradition after a year of controversy by Saab’s legal team, which includes former Spanish judge Baltasar Garzon and BakerHostetler, one of the largest US firms.

In 2019, Miami Federal Attorneys’ Office indicted Saab for money laundering related to an alleged bribery scheme that resulted in the embezzlement of more than $ 350 million from a housing project for Venezuela’s underprivileged authorities.

In addition, the previous Trump administration imposed sanctions on Saab for allegedly using a network of shell companies around the world – in the United Arab Emirates, Turkey, Hong Kong, Panama, Colombia, and Mexico – to hide huge gains from revaluation and lack of trading. Food contracts received through bribes and kickbacks.

Some of Saab’s contracts were obtained by paying bribes to the adult children of Venezuelan First Lady Cilia Flores, the Trump administration claimed. The three men, commonly known in Venezuela as “Los Chamos,” which means “children,” are also under investigation by the Miami prosecutor’s office for alleged involvement in a scheme to siphon $ 1.2 billion from Venezuela’s state oil company. this was reported by an American investigation by the Associated Press.

But while in private conversation, US officials have long referred to Saab as Maduro’s front man, he is not mentioned as such in court documents.

The previous Trump administration made Saab’s extradition a top priority, at one point even sending a naval warship to the African archipelago to keep an eye on the prisoner.

In turn, the Maduro government strongly opposes the persecution of Saab as a veiled attempt by the US government to change the regime.

However, the Biden administration downplayed the importance of Saab’s concerns, saying that he could defend himself in US courts and that his case should not affect ongoing Norway-sponsored negotiations aimed at overcoming Venezuela’s protracted economic crisis and political tug-of-war.

Last month, the government appointed Saab to its negotiating team, and fellow ambassadors arrived in Mexico with signs that read “Free Alex Saab.”

Nation World News Desk
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