Maduro ally claims diplomatic status to fight US charges
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