Mexico City, Mexico, November 17, 2021 (venezuelanalysis.com) - Venezuelan government envoy Alex Saab pleaded not guilty to money laundering charges in a US federal court on Monday.
Saab faces a lone count of conspiracy to launder money, a charge that carries a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison if found guilty. Prosecutors requested the judge drop seven other changes as part of a deal with the Republic of Cape Verde to secure his extradition to the US. His trial is scheduled to begin on January 3, 2022, at 9 AM, though it is widely expected to be postponed.
The Colombo-Venezuelan businessman was detained in Cabo Verde in June 2020 during a stopover in the African archipelago. He was reportedly on his way to Iran to negotiate fuel and food imports on behalf of the Nicolas Maduro government. His eventual extradition ran afoul of a ruling by the regional Economic Community of West Africa (ECOWAS) Court, which had ordered Cabo Verde to release Saab and pay him damages.
His arrest and subsequent extradition was described by the Venezuelan government as a "kidnapping" and has been subject to intense criticism due to the alleged irregularities in the process. Caracas maintains that Saab was on a diplomatic mission and therefore enjoyed immunity from arrest and prosecution. According to news reports, Saab's lawyer, Neil Schuster, has stressed his diplomatic credentials throughout court proceedings, addressing the court as a representative for the "Diplomat of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela".
Litigation in the US regarding his diplomatic status is ongoing and could affect the start of his trial on money laundering charges.
Outside the Miami courthouse, a group of demonstrators expressed their support for the Colombo-Venezuelan businessman, part of a wider set of demonstrations that took place throughout the world in support of Saab.
In Venezuela, a group of supporters on motorcycles rode through the capital demanding his release before arriving at the Cuban Embassy where they heard from Camilla Fabri Saab, wife of the envoy who has become the face of the campaign in his defense.
"What fills me with hope? The conscience of Venezuelans, the solidarity among Latin American brothers, the demonstrations of support of ordinary people in North America. All united in defense of respect for diplomacy and peace," said Fabri in a tweet.
Fabri Saab has consistently maintained that her husband is uninterested in reaching a plea deal with US authorities.
In a recent interview with Press TV, she alleged that her husband was "physically" and "psychologically" tortured while in Cape Verdean custody and denied adequate medical care. Saab is a cancer survivor.
For its part, Caracas has launched a massive public campaign advocating for his freedom while also working through back-channels to secure his release. According to a report by the Associated Press, Venezuela's government offered last year to release a group of US citizens, known as the "Citgo Six" along with two former Green Berets, in exchange for Saab. The Trump administration reportedly refused the deal.
A Venezuelan judge recently granted an appeal to the Citgo Six, who were found guilty of corruption by a Venezuelan court last year. The oil executives had been granted house arrest but the measure was revoked after Saab's extradition to the US.
The controversial legal case also carried other political repercussions, with the Venezuelan government pulling out of talks with the US-backed opposition as a result. Caracas had appointed the businessman as a delegate at the Mexico-based talks, which were due to enter their fourth round the day after his extradition.
In a separate but related case, a Manhattan federal judge sentenced retired University of Miami professor and alleged Saab associate Bruce Bagley to six months in prison for his role in a laundering scheme. The Venezuelan envoy's lawyers have denied that Saab had any ties to Bagley.
Edited by Ricardo Vaz from Caracas.
Jose Luis Granados Ceja | source: venezuelanalysis