Caracas, December 24, 2022 (venezuelanalysis.com) – Florida judge Robert Scola has rejected a motion to dismiss criminal charges against Venezuelan government envoy Alex Saab by ruling against claims to diplomatic immunity.
In his decision published Friday, the district magistrate argued that the United States' non-recognition of the Maduro government should disqualify Caracas' appointees' diplomatic status. In January 2019, the Trump administration supported opposition politician Juan Guaidó’s self-proclamation as “interim president.”
Scola reached his conclusions after evidentiary hearings on December 12 and 13 and oral arguments on December 20. The judge also sided with federal prosecutors who brought up alleged inconsistencies in the documents submitted by Saab's lawyers in recent months to back up his position as a special envoy.
“Against this sum of evidentiary inconsistencies and indications of documentary manipulation, the Court is left to conclude that the Maduro regime has, in a post hoc manner, done its best to imprint upon Saab Moran a diplomatic status that he did not factually possess on June 12, 2020 [date of his arrest],” the ruling reads.
The Maduro government envoy was arrested during a refueling stopover in Cape Verde in June 2020 on his way to Iran to negotiate food and fuel import deals amidst US sanctions. In October 2021, he was forcefully flown to Florida to face a charge of conspiracy to commit money laundering. He pleaded not guilty.
Seven other charges were dropped as part of a purported agreement with Cape Verde, despite there being no extradition treaty between the African nation and the US.
Saab had been indicted by a Miami federal court in 2019 on charges of laundering funds from overpriced state-assigned contracts related to Venezuela’s Great Housing Mission (GMVV) and the government-subsidized CLAP food program. He is accused of having moved some $350 million through the US banking system.
During the recent hearings, prosecution attorneys likewise pointed to the fact that Saab did not disclose his alleged diplomatic status during reported meetings with US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) officials as part of a supposed cooperation deal that saw him forfeit some US $12.5 million. His legal team confirmed the meetings but denied any cooperation.
In response to Friday’s ruling, Saab’s defense vowed to challenge the decision before the 11th US Circuit Court of Appeals, which already heard arguments on the matter in April. A timeline for the appeals process is not publicly known.
"We are confident that Mr. Saab's diplomatic immunity will be recognized and vindicated," lead attorney David Rivkin said in a statement.
The lawyer from Baker Hostetler expressed “disappointment” with the District Court’s decision and reiterated the existence of “binding legal precedent” to back the Venezuelan government envoy’s immunity from prosecution under the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations.
Defense lawyers had rebutted Judge Scola’s claim that Washington’s non-recognition of the Maduro government should rule out Saab’s diplomatic status by arguing that the businessman never set foot on US soil. Instead, he was on his way to Iran and correspondence between Caracas and Tehran sustained his diplomatic condition.
Scola’s argument, according to Saab’s attorneys, was akin to “kidnapping someone and then charging them with trespassing.” The defense team has consistently warned that this case can establish a precedent for diplomatic personnel around the world.
Caracas has defended Saab on reiterated occasions and blasted what it deems a “kidnapping” and a politically motivated trial. The Venezuelan government delegation walked away from talks with the US-backed opposition in October 2021 when the envoy was taken to Florida and charged. Though negotiations resumed after a year-long hiatus, Saab’s release has remained a consistent demand.
The Maduro administration reacted on Saturday with a communique that called Scola's ruling a "clear and gross violation" of the Vienna Convention. It labeled the trial as a "spurious judicial process" and a reprisal against Saab for helping the country evade the US economic blockade.
"The Venezuelan government again calls on US authorities to respect international law and immediately release Venezuelan diplomat Alex Naim Saab Morán," the text reads.