Maduro ally seeks recognition as Venezuela diplomat in court

Dec 11, 2022, 7:26 PM | Updated: Dec 12, 2022, 9:40 am
FILE - Pedestrians walk near a poster asking for the freedom of Colombian businessman and Venezuela...

FILE - Pedestrians walk near a poster asking for the freedom of Colombian businessman and Venezuelan special envoy Alex Saab, in Caracas, Venezuela, Sept. 9, 2021. Saab is in federal court in Miami Monday, Dec. 12, 2022, seeking to dismiss criminal money laundering charges by arguing that he is a Venezuelan diplomat immune from prosecution in the U.S. (AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos, File)

(AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos, File)

MIAMI (AP) — For more than two years, almost since the time of his arrest on U.S. warrant, Alex Saab has insisted he is a Venezuelan diplomat targeted for his work helping the South American country circumvent American economic sanctions.

Starting Monday, the Colombian-born businessman will get a chance to prove that claim to a federal judge in Miami tasked with weighing evidence that purportedly backs his diplomatic status.

A handful of protesters carrying the Venezuelan flag and signs reading “Free Alex Saab” Monday stood outside as a large contingent of prosecutors and defense attorneys carrying stacks of binders filed into the Wilke Ferguson federal courthouse in downtown Miami.

Saab, 50, was pulled off a private jet in the summer of 2020 during a fuel stop in Cape Verde en route to Iran, where he was sent to negotiate oil deals on behalf of President Nicolas Maduro’s socialist government. The charges: 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.

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

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

At issue are the limits of diplomatic immunity from prosecution, and whether Saab even has a basis under U.S. law to assert that he was a “special envoy” sent on a secret, humanitarian mission by Maduro to negotiate with Iran’s Islamic government.

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 in a matter of weeks. At the time of his arrest, Saab was also allegedly 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.

“This really is one of those cases if it looks like duck, acts like a duck, quacks like a duck then it is a duck,” Jonathan New, one of Saab’s attorneys, said in an opening statement. “Mr. Saab was and is a special envoy.”

But Assistant U.S. Attorney Alex Kramer argued that some of the documents underlying that claim were falsified “to provide some sort of credibility to this argument that he was some sort of special envoy.”

Those include a diplomatic passport, which Saab wasn’t carrying at the time of his arrest and which contains a picture and signature matching another, non-diplomatic passport issued two years earlier.

They also question the authenticity of the Venezuelan government’s Official Gazette from April 26, 2018 where he was purportedly appointed special envoy by presidential decree. A printed copy of that same edition – No. 6,373 – held at the U.S. Library of Congress and a digital version on the Venezuelan Supreme Court’s website contain no mention of his purported appointment.

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.

Judge Robert Scola’s courtroom was packed with mostly supporters of Venezuela’s government. Also in attendance was a colleague of Eyvin Hernandez, an American attorney with the public defender’s office in Los Angeles who was taken into custody by Venezuela on its border with Colombia this year and charged with attempting to enter the country illegally.

For month, speculation has been swirling that Saab could walk free as part of some sort of prisoner swap for Hernandez and up to three other Americans detained in Caracas. A similar deal for two nephews of Maduro convicted in New York on drug charges secured the release of seven other Americans detained in Venezuela in October. The Biden administration has insisted that no such negotiations are taking place.

The hearing is expected to last about a week.

—–

Follow Goodman on Twitter: @APJoshGoodman

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

AP

/// State Sen. Clarence Lam, a Maryland Democrat who is a physician at Johns Hopkins, speaks during...
Associated Press

As many as 80K Marylanders could lose Medicaid eligibility

ANNAPOLIS, Md. (AP) — Maryland officials are preparing for as many as 80,000 residents who could no longer qualify for Medicaid coverage this spring, as the federal government reinstates a requirement that existed before the COVID-19 pandemic for states to verify the eligibility of recipients. Michele Eberle, the executive director of the Maryland Health Benefit […]
1 day ago
Associated Press

2 abducted Missouri children found in a Florida supermarket

HIGH SPRINGS, Fla. (AP) — Two abducted children who had been missing from Missouri for almost a year were found in a central Florida grocery store with their non-custodial mother, who was taken into police custody, authorities said. Kristi Gilley was arrested last Wednesday on an out-of-state fugitive warrant. Court records show Gilley, 36, remained […]
1 day ago
Alex Murdaugh, right, leans over to talk with his attorney Jim Griffin in his double murder trial a...
Associated Press

How the cases in Alex Murdaugh’s murder trial are shaping up

Two weeks into the double murder trial of South Carolina attorney Alex Murdaugh, prosecutors haven’t presented any direct evidence that he killed his wife and son at their home in June 2021. There is no confession, no surveillance camera footage, no recording of the victims’ final moments. If found guilty of murdering his wife, Maggie, […]
1 day ago
People protest against the exclusion of some animals in the new animal protection law, Madrid, Spai...
Associated Press

Spain: Rights groups urge more protection for hunting dogs

MADRID (AP) — Animal rights groups and pet shop owners marched Sunday in separate demonstrations to protest a new animal welfare law proposed by the Spanish government that seeks to advance the protection of animal rights. The draft legislation has fueled criticism by animal rights groups after a last-minute amendment excluded hunting dogs from the […]
1 day ago
RowVaughn Wells, mother of Tyre Nichols, pauses as she listens during a news conference about the d...
Associated Press

Tyre Nichols’ mom, chief: Women on two sides of a tragedy

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) — Tyre Nichols ‘ mother was just steps away from her son but couldn’t hear his anguished cries. Beaten and broken, struggling to survive, Nichols had called out for her as five Memphis Police Department officers punched him, kicked him, and hit him with a baton after a traffic stop on Jan. […]
1 day ago
FILE - Beyoncé appears at the 63rd annual Grammy Awards in Los Angeles on March 14, 2021.  (AP Pho...
Associated Press

How to watch the Grammys live (including the red carpet)

LOS ANGELES (AP) — The Grammys have evolved from their humble beginnings into a daylong feast of music — and there’s many ways to watch the red carpet and show live. Most of the awards are handed out before that during the Premiere Ceremony, which the Recording Academy will stream live Sunday beginning at 3:30 […]
1 day ago

Sponsored Articles

safety from crime...

As crime increases, our safety measures must too

It's easy to be accused of fearmongering regarding crime, but Seattle residents might have good reason to be concerned for their safety.
Comcast Ready for Business Fund...
Ilona Lohrey | President and CEO, GSBA

GSBA is closing the disparity gap with Ready for Business Fund

GSBA, Comcast, and other partners are working to address disparities in access to financial resources with the Ready for Business fund.
SHIBA WA...

Medicare open enrollment is here and SHIBA can help!

The SHIBA program – part of the Office of the Insurance Commissioner – is ready to help with your Medicare open enrollment decisions.
Lake Washington Windows...

Choosing Best Windows for Your Home

Lake Washington Windows and Doors is a local window dealer offering the exclusive Leak Armor installation.
Anacortes Christmas Tree...

Come one, come all! Food, Drink, and Coastal Christmas – Anacortes has it all!

Come celebrate Anacortes’ 11th annual Bier on the Pier! Bier on the Pier takes place on October 7th and 8th and features local ciders, food trucks and live music - not to mention the beautiful views of the Guemes Channel and backdrop of downtown Anacortes.
Swedish Cyberknife Treatment...

The revolutionary treatment of Swedish CyberKnife provides better quality of life for majority of patients

There are a wide variety of treatments options available for men with prostate cancer. One of the most technologically advanced treatment options in the Pacific Northwest is Stereotactic Body Radiation Therapy using the CyberKnife platform at Swedish Medical Center.
Maduro ally seeks recognition as Venezuela diplomat in court