Guayaquil, Ecuador, February 16, 2022 (venezuelanalysis.com) – A US judge set October 11 for the trial on Venezuelan government special envoy Alex Saab, who was charged with conspiracy to launder money.
In a hearing at the Miami Federal Courthouse on Wednesday, Judge Robert Scola clarified that Saab’s trial date was only preliminary as his defense looks to have his diplomatic immunity upheld at the Eleventh Circuit Court in Atlanta, Georgia, on April 4.
According to the Nicolás Maduro government, the businessman was appointed as a special envoy and given a diplomatic passport in April 2018 as part of the Caribbean country’s efforts to circumvent US financial and trade sanctions.
On Wednesday’s hearing, Scola went on to schedule a follow-up session for June 10 to review the Atlanta court resolution on Saab’s diplomatic status. On October 4, details for the final trial are due to be settled. However, the Florida court stated that all dates are subject to modification. The federal judge likewise refused a bail request once more.
The Miami hearing was marked by the unsealing of new court records filed by the US Department of Justice, adding another layer to the controversial case. The documents alleged that Saab “proactively” cooperated for 12 months with the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) since June 2018, forfeiting some US $10 million in funds and providing information about “bribes that he paid and crimes that he committed.”
Saab reportedly failed to surrender to US authorities on May 30, 2019 as agreed. In retaliation, he was later indicted by a Miami federal court on charges of laundering money profited through state contracts related to imports for Venezuela’s Great Housing Mission (GMVV) and the government-subsidized CLAP food program.
In response to the new allegations, the Venezuelan envoy’s lawyers immediately issued a statement confirming that some meetings did occur but denying accusations of Saab being an informant.
“Mr. Saab wishes to clarify that the sole purpose of the meetings with the Department of Justice and law enforcement officials was to confirm that neither he nor any companies associated with him had done anything wrong,” read the communique.
The defense team added that “any alleged engagement was undertaken with the full knowledge and support of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela,” stressing that Saab remains a “loyal citizen” and “diplomat” of the South American nation.
“The release of the document at the request of the Department of Justice is no more than an attempt to harm the interests of Venezuela and further evidence the weakness of the criminal charges made against him,” concluded the statement, signed by Saab’s attorney David Rivkin, who was not present in court.
Saab’s case has been singled out as being politically motivated and mired with irregularities, including the continued disregard of his diplomatic credentials in legal proceedings.
In June 2020, the businessman was detained without an Interpol warrant during a refueling stopover in Cape Verde en route to Iran to close food, medicine, and fuel import deals on behalf of Caracas. After a protracted legal battle, on September 8, 2021, Cape Verde's Constitutional Court ruled that the Venezuelan envoy should be extradited. He was flown to Florida on October 16.
However, the extradition ran afoul of an earlier ruling by the regional Economic Community of West Africa Court (ECOWAS), ordering Saab’s release citing several irregularities.
Additionally, court filings revealed that Saab’s controversial extradition to Florida was the result of a deal with Cape Verde, with both parties agreeing that he would face no more than 20 years in prison, the maximum allowed in the African nation’s laws. On November 1, 2021, US judge Robert Scola dismissed seven out of eight money-laundering charges, leaving one lone count of conspiracy to launder money. Saab has pleaded not guilty.
Recently, Colombia-based US Charge d'Affaires to Venezuela James Story shed more light on Saab’s arrest and subsequent extradition process. In an interview, the official admitted that Washington held a 15-month long negotiation with Cape Verdean authorities and congratulated the African nation for “standing firm.”
The statements prompted a reaction from Saab’s wife Camilla Fabri, currently living in Caracas as a leading member of the campaign for the Venezuelan diplomat’s release.
“James Story has just publicly acknowledged what we have been denouncing [for months]. This is a case of political persecution, they used Cape Verde to kidnap Alex. They accept this without any shame,” stated Fabri during a webinar on February 4.
As Saab appeared in front of the Miami federal court, several rallies took place across the US showing support and demanding his immediate release. At least four protests were staged in Miami, Washington, Boston and New York while another one was held in the US consulate in Montreal, Canada. Two online events organized by Venezuelan officials and activists likewise accompanied Wednesday’s #FreeAlexSaab campaign.
Is feeding a country illegal? Join us TODAY @ noon in front of the Dept. of Justice in DC to demand the inmediate release of Ambassador Alex Saab. He is a political prisoner kidnapped by USA for evading sanctions that are hurting the Venezuelan people. #FreeAlexSaab @codepink pic.twitter.com/VaSzAn6xfF
— Michelle Ellner (@MichelleEllner) February 16, 2022
Saab’s extradition had major political repercussions, with the Venezuelan government pulling out of the Norway-brokered negotiations held with the US-backed opposition in Mexico City. Caracas has stated that talks will only resume once Saab is released.
Edited by Ricardo Vaz from Caracas.