For more than two years, almost from the time he was arrested on a US warrant, Alex Saab has insisted he was a persecuted Venezuelan for his work helping the South American country avoid US sanctions. are diplomats.
Starting Monday, the Colombian-born businessman will have the opportunity to prove that claim before a judge in Miami who is in charge of evaluating evidence on whether Saab does in fact have diplomatic status.
A small group of protesters with Venezuelan flags and signs reading “Free Alex Saab” stood outside the Wilke Ferguson building in Miami on Monday as large contingents of prosecutors and lawyers entered carrying thick folders.
Saab, 50, was taken on a private plane during a fuel stop in Cape Verde in the summer of 2020 on his way to Iran, where he was to negotiate oil deals for the socialist government of President Nicolas Maduro. He was charged with conspiracy to commit money laundering in a bribery case that allegedly diverted $350 million through public contracts to build affordable housing for the Venezuelan government.
Saab was initially displayed as a trophy by the Trump administration, which is making no secret of its efforts to oust Maduro, who is also facing drug charges in the United States.
But the criminal case has become a contentious issue as the current Joe Biden administration seeks to improve relations with the OPEC member nation and secure new sources of fuel to meet Russia’s oil shortages that have been fueled by its invasion of Ukraine. are under restrictions to do so.
The dispute revolved around diplomatic immunity and whether Saab could, under US law, claim that he was a “special envoy” on a secret humanitarian mission to negotiate with the Iranian government on Maduro’s behalf.
Saab’s lawyers presented as evidence what they said were diplomatic notes between Iran and Venezuela on what was Saab’s third visit to Iran in as many weeks. At the time of his arrest, Saab was said to be carrying a sealed letter from Maduro to the Supreme Leader of Iran, in which he was asking for a planned deal to import fuel due to long queues of vehicles at gas stations in Venezuela. Support was sought.
“This really is one of those cases where if something looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it is a duck,” Jonathan New, one of Saab’s attorneys, filed. Said in arguments. “Shri Saab was and will remain a special envoy.”
But US Attorney Alex Kramer said some of the documents were falsified “to give some credence to the argument that he was some sort of special envoy.”
Among the documents is a diplomatic passport, which Saab was not carrying when he was arrested and which has the same photo and signature as the non-diplomatic passport issued two years ago.
Prosecutors also question the authenticity of the edition of the Venezuelan Official Gazette dated April 26, 2018, in which Saab was allegedly appointed special envoy by presidential decree. The same version number in the United States Library of Congress—number 6,373—and the digital version on the website of the Supreme Court of Venezuela do not include that alleged designation.
The controversy has been fueled by the revelation that Saab, before being arrested, had agreed to become an informant for the US anti-drug agency DEA and was providing it with information about corruption in Maduro’s close circle.
Judge Robert Scola’s courtroom was packed, mostly supporters of the Venezuelan government. An American attorney with the Los Angeles public defender’s office was also a law school colleague of Evin Hernandez, who was recently detained by Venezuela at the Colombian border and charged with attempting to enter the country illegally. was imposed.
There has been speculation that Saab may be released in exchange for Hernandez and three other Americans detained in Caracas. In October, two of Maduro’s nephews convicted in New York were released in exchange for seven Americans detained in Venezuela. The Biden administration says it is not involved in such talks.
The hearing is expected to last for about a week.
Goodman and Twitter: @APJoshGoodman