MIAMI (AP) – A top fugitive close to Venezuela’s socialist government has been sent from Cape Verde to the United States to face money laundering charges, a senior US official confirmed Saturday.
Alex Saab flew on a Justice Department chartered flight from West Africa, a small island chain where he was arrested 16 months ago, when he stopped on his way to Iran for what Nicolas Maduro’s government would later describe as a diplomatic humanitarian mission.
The official made a condition that his name would not be announced. Saab’s public relations firm said in an email that the Colombian businessman was taken away from his home without notifying his lawyers.
The arrival of Saab in the United States is bound to complicate relations between Washington and Caracas, possibly disrupting talks just begun between the Maduro government and the US-backed opposition in Mexico.
Maduro accused the United States of “kidnapping” and “torturing” Saab, a Colombian businessman who prosecutors say made his fortune working on behalf of the socialist government, which is subject to harsh US sanctions.
US authorities have harassed Saab for years, believing it has many secrets about how Maduro, the president’s family and his closest aides siphoned off millions of dollars in government food and housing contracts amid widespread hunger in oil-rich Venezuela.
However, his defenders, including the Maduro government and allies Russia and Cuba, consider his arrest illegal and argue that Saab was a diplomatic envoy of the Venezuelan government and as such is immune from prosecution while on official business.
In a statement on Saturday, the Venezuelan government reiterated its condemnation of the US government’s “abduction” of Saab “with the complicity of the Cape Verdean authorities.”
“The Government of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela condemns this grave violation of human rights against a Venezuelan citizen who was a diplomat and representative of our country to the world,” the statement said.
The argument did not convince the Constitutional Court of Cape Verde, which last month authorized his extradition after a year of controversy by Saab’s legal team, which includes former Spanish judge Baltasar Garzon and BakerHostetler, one of the largest US firms.
In 2019, Miami federal attorneys charged Saab with money laundering charges related to an alleged bribery scheme that resulted in the embezzlement of more than $ 350 million from a housing project for Venezuela’s underprivileged authorities.
In addition, the previous Trump administration imposed sanctions on Saab for allegedly using a network of shell companies around the world – in the United Arab Emirates, Turkey, Hong Kong, Panama, Colombia, and Mexico – to hide huge gains from revaluation and lack of trading. Food contracts received through bribes and kickbacks.
Some of Saab’s contracts were obtained by paying bribes to the adult children of Venezuelan First Lady Cilia Flores, the Trump administration claimed. The three men, commonly known in Venezuela as “Los Chamos,” which means “children,” are also under investigation by the Miami prosecutor’s office for alleged involvement in a scheme to siphon $ 1.2 billion from Venezuela’s state oil company. this was reported by an American investigation by the Associated Press.
But while in private conversation, US officials have long referred to Saab as Maduro’s front man, he is not mentioned as such in court documents.
The previous Trump administration made Saab’s extradition a top priority, at one point even sending a naval warship to the African archipelago to keep an eye on the prisoner.
On Saturday. Colombian President Ivan Duque praised Saab’s extradition in a tweet, calling it “a triumph in the fight against drug trafficking, money laundering and corruption led by the dictatorship of Nicolas Maduro.”
The Maduro government strongly opposes the persecution of Saab as a veiled attempt by the US government to change the regime.
“Alex Saab is an innocent Venezuelan diplomat, victim of kidnapping and human rights violations, who served our country in the face of an immoral imperial blockade,” Venezuelan Vice President Delsi Rodriguez tweeted.
However, the Biden administration downplayed the importance of Saab’s concerns, saying that he can defend himself in US courts and that his case should not affect the ongoing Norway-sponsored negotiations aimed at overcoming Venezuela’s protracted economic crisis and political tug-of-war.
Last month, the government appointed Saab to its negotiating team, and fellow ambassadors arrived in Mexico with signs that read “Free Alex Saab.”
Follow Goodman on Twitter: @APJoshGoodman