MIAMI– A federal judge in Miami on Friday dismissed attempts by a close ally of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro to shield himself from criminal charges, ruling that Alex Saab is not entitled to diplomatic immunity in the United States and must stand trial. for money laundering charges.
The legal fight over Saab’s alleged diplomatic status was closely watched by Maduro’s socialist government, which demanded the Colombian-born businessman’s release in stealth negotiations with the Biden administration.
In 2019, the United States stopped recognizing Maduro as Venezuela’s rightful ruler, and Judge Robert Scola cited that determination as the basis for denying Saab’s motion to dismiss the criminal charges.
He also sided with prosecutors who questioned the legitimacy of several official Venezuelan credentials that Saab relied on to bolster his claim to diplomatic status – and questioned why he never mentioned his alleged diplomatic status during several secret meetings with agents of the United States Drug Enforcement Administration.
“Evidence suggests that the Maduro regime and its accomplices fabricated documents to dress Saab Moran in diplomatic garb that did not suit him, all in an effort to exploit the right of diplomatic immunities and prevent his extradition. to the United States,” the judge wrote.
For more than two years, almost since his arrest in Africa on US warrant, Saab has insisted he was a Venezuelan diplomat targeted for his work helping his adopted homeland circumvent US economic sanctions.
Saab, 51, was removed from a private jet in the summer of 2020 during a stopover in Cape Verde en route to Iran, where he was heading to negotiate oil deals on behalf of Maduro’s government.
He is charged with conspiracy to commit money laundering related to a bribery scheme that allegedly embezzled $350 million through public contracts to build affordable housing for the Venezuelan government.
In a hearing on Tuesday, Scola pressed Saab’s seven-lawyer legal team to explain why he should deviate from the position taken by the US State Department, which said Saab had no right diplomatic immunity in the United States.
Since 2019, the United States has recognized opposition lawmaker Juan Guaido as the rightful leader of Venezuela – a position repeatedly affirmed by US federal courts in numerous lawsuits brought by unpaid creditors seeking to seize oil assets. from the country abroad.
Scola compared Saab’s situation to a hypothetical situation in which former President Donald Trump – who did not acknowledge his loss in the 2020 election – had to issue passports with the supposed imprimatur of the US government.
“It is clear that the United States does not recognize the Maduro regime to represent the official government of Venezuela,” Scola wrote. “As a result, any claim for diplomatic immunity claimed by a representative of the Maduro regime must also be considered illegitimate.”
Saab’s lawyer presented as evidence what they claim were diplomatic notes exchanged between Iran and Venezuela discussing what was to be Saab’s third trip to Iran. At the time of his arrest, Saab was also believed to be carrying a sealed letter from Maduro to Iran’s supreme leader seeking his full support for a planned deal to import fuel at a time of long gas lines in Venezuela.
“It’s like you have to kidnap someone, bring them to your house and then charge them with trespassing,” said Lee Casey, one of Saab’s attorneys, during the hearing this week.
But prosecutors presented evidence that some of the documents supporting Saab’s claim – including a Venezuelan diplomatic passport and a presidential decree published in Venezuela’s Official Gazette – may have been forged.
“He was a courier at best,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Alex Kramer said during the proceedings. “But being a courier of diplomatic letters does not make someone a diplomat.”
Scola seemed to agree. He also found that even if Saab was a duly appointed special envoy, he would not be entitled to immunity in transit under international treaties and conventions that only protect members of permanent diplomatic missions. It would automatically make a defendant “untouchable” in the United States as long as he had a free pass from another country making him the head of a temporary mission, he said.
“Immunizing heads of temporary missions in the manner suggested by Saab Moran would open the door to the abuse of diplomatic immunities in ways that could seriously impede cross-border law enforcement activities,” Scola wrote.
Saab was first presented as a trophy by the Trump administration, which has made no secret of its efforts to oust Maduro, himself wanted for drug trafficking in the United States.
But the criminal case has become a major sticking point as the Biden administration seeks to improve relations with Venezuela and tap into new oil supplies to offset Russia’s loss of exports from sanctions. for his invasion of Ukraine.
The standoff was further complicated by the revelation that Saab, prior to his arrest, had been listed as an informant by the DEA and provided him with information about corruption within Maduro’s inner circle.
For months, speculation had swirled that Saab might walk free in some sort of prisoner swap for several Americans held in Caracas. A similar deal for two Maduro nephews convicted in New York of drug trafficking led to the release in October of seven other Americans detained in Venezuela. The Biden administration has insisted that no such negotiations are taking place.
Joshua Goodman on Twitter: @APJoshGoodman