US judge rejects Maduro ally's claim of diplomatic immunity

A federal judge in Miami has rejected attempts by a close ally of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro to shield himself from U.S. criminal charges

Joshua Goodman
Friday 23 December 2022 22:02 GMT

A federal judge in Miami on Friday rejected attempts by a close ally of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro to shield himself from criminal charges, ruling Alex Saab isn't entitled to diplomatic immunity in the U.S. and must stand trial on accusations of money laundering.

The legal fight over Saab's purported diplomatic status was being closely watched by Maduro's socialist government, which has demanded the release of the Colombian-born businessman as part of furtive negotiations with the Biden administration.

The U.S. since 2019 has stopped recognizing Maduro as Venezuela's legitimate leader, and Judge Robert Scola cited that determination as a basis for rejecting Saab's motion to dismiss the criminal charges.

“Maduro’s regime has been deemed 'illegitimate,'” Scola wrote in a 15-page ruling. “Any claim to diplomatic immunity asserted by a representative of the Maduro regime must also be considered illegitimate.”

For more than two years, almost since the time of his arrest in Africa on a U.S. warrant, Saab has insisted he is a Venezuelan diplomat targeted for his work helping his adopted homeland circumvent American economic sanctions.

Saab, 51, was pulled from a private jet in the summer of 2020 during a stop 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 tied to a bribery scheme that allegedly siphoned off $350 million through state contracts to build affordable housing for Venezuela’s government.

At a hearing Tuesday, Scola pressed Saab's legal team of seven attorneys to explain why he should depart from the position taken by the U.S. State Department, which said Saab isn't entitled to diplomatic immunity in the U.S.

The U.S. since 2019 has recognized opposition lawmaker Juan Guaido as Venezuela's legitimate leader — a position repeatedly affirmed by U.S. federal courts in numerous lawsuits brought by unpaid creditors seeking to seize the country's overseas oil assets.

Scola likened Saab's situation to a hypothetical situation in which former President Donald Trump — who hasn't recognized his loss in the 2020 election — were to issue passports with the supposed imprimatur of the U.S. government.

“We don’t recognize the Maduro regime as the legitimate government of Venezuela," said Scola.

Saab’s attorney’s presented as evidence what they claim are 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 purportedly 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 if you were to kidnap someone, bring them to your home and then charge them with trespassing,” Lee Casey, one of Saab's attorney, said at this week's hearing.

But prosecutors presented evidence that some of the documents bolstering Saab's claim — among them a Venezuelan diplomatic passport and a presidential decree published in Venezuela's Official Gazette — were possibly falsified.

“At best he was a courier,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Alex Kramer said during proceedings. “But being a courier of diplomatic letters does not make one a diplomat.”

Saab was initially held up as a trophy by the Trump administration, which made no secret of its efforts to oust Maduro, who himself is wanted on U.S. drug trafficking charges.

But the criminal case has become a major sticking point as the Biden administration seeks to improve relations with Venezuela and tap new oil supplies to make up for a loss of exports from Russia following sanctions over its invasion of Ukraine

The tug of war has been further complicated by the revelation that Saab, prior to his arrest, had been signed up as an informant by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and had been providing it with information about corruption in Maduro’s inner circle.


Joshua Goodman on Twitter: @APJoshGoodman

Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in