Tuesday, January 26, 2021

Cape Verde court gives clearance to extradite ally of Venezuela’s President Maduro

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A court in the African country of Cape Verde ruled that Alex Saab, a Colombian businessman who had been Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro’s deal maker, can be extradited to the U.S., where he was indicted on charges of laundering money for the authoritarian regime.

An appeals court issued the decision on Monday, rejecting claims by Mr. Saab’s attorneys that their client wouldn’t get a fair trial in the U.S. and that the case against him was politically motivated.

“The crimes for which the person facing extradition is pursued are not of a political nature and do not appear to be for political or ideological reasons,” the court said in a 46-page ruling.

Mr. Saab’s lawyers, led by former Spanish judge Baltasar Garzón, said on Tuesday an appeal would be made in the next few days to Cape Verde’s Supreme Court to prevent Mr. Saab’s extradition. Mr. Garzón and the legal team have argued that Mr. Saab, who was granted citizenship by Mr. Maduro’s government, had been on a commercial mission for the regime and had diplomatic immunity.

Mr. Garzón said pressure from the U.S. has made it a challenge to win the release of Mr. Saab, who was arrested in June when his private plane stopped to refuel at Cape Verde, an island country nearly 400 miles off West Africa.

“There’s something fundamental here, which is the role of the United States,” Mr. Garzón said. “This person is a means to an end, which is to get to the Venezuelan government and its president. That’s the political goal.”

Though rarely seen in public, Mr. Saab, 49 years old, emerged in recent years as a key financier for Mr. Maduro’s increasingly pariah government, proving to be a vital broker as U.S. sanctions were leveled at the country’s oil industry to buckle the regime.

Mr. Saab helped create a global network of businesses that U.S. officials say were used to stash hundreds of millions of dollars in proceeds from no-bid state contracts for projects ranging from housing construction to food distribution.

With the Maduro regime trying to stay financially afloat as the U.S. Treasury Department under President Trump issued one sanction after another, the Venezuelan government created an economic model that American officials say is less dependent on the country’s collapsing oil industry and more centered on the exports of valuable minerals such as gold, drug trafficking and a robust trade in contraband.

“He was able to diversify these businesses, which requires the laundering of money,” Zair Mundaray, a former top prosecutor in Venezuela who is in exile in Colombia, said of Mr. Saab, whom he investigated. “He was very effective and able to locate great quantities of money around the world.”

Prosecutors in the Southern District of Florida indicted Mr. Saab in July 2019 on charges that he transferred, using U.S. banks, more than $350 million in funds secured through government corruption schemes going back to 2011.

Mr. Saab also used shell companies to steal money from the regime’s food handout program, which has been wielded to ensure loyalty from poor Venezuelans, U.S. officials said.

Mr. Saab was seen as “bulletproof in terms of loyalty” by Mr. Maduro’s circle, said Martin Rodil, a Venezuelan in Washington who works with federal agencies to recruit witnesses to build cases against corrupt Venezuelan officials.

For American prosecutors, Mr. Saab could provide essential information on how Venezuela moves money in the world’s financial system in exchange for a plea bargain, Mr. Rodil said.

“What they want is to go after the banks that have been helping Venezuela to sidestep sanctions,” he said. “Alex Saab was the guy who would go to China, he’d go to Turkey, he’d go to Dubai, Iran, and to Eastern Europe, Serbia, that’s what’s valuable about him.”

Mr. Garzón said the evidence against Mr. Saab is circumstantial and that he is innocent until it is proven otherwise. Mr. Saab’s defense is trying to derail extradition by arguing that he had regime-issued letters laying out his diplomatic work. The appeals court noted he was traveling with normal Colombian and Venezuelan passports, and that the Venezuelan government hadn’t informed Cape Verde he would be passing through.

Mr. Garzón said the stop in Cape Verde hadn’t been planned, but that Mr. Saab’s private plane had been denied refueling rights in two other North African countries, leaving him to land in the archipelago.

Mr. Saab had been en route to Iran, where U.S. officials believe he had been working to cut a deal of gold for Iranian gasoline and other products, a person familiar with the trip said.

The Venezuelan government late last month called the detention of Mr. Saab “part of an obsessive siege campaign” by the Trump administration against Venezuela. In what was seen as an effort to try to shield the deal maker with diplomatic immunity, the regime appointed him special representative to the African Union on Christmas Eve.

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