MIAMI (AP) – A Colombian businessman carried a letter from the president of Venezuela, Nicolás Maduro, accrediting him to the supreme leader of Iran when he was arrested last year by a United States warrant, according to a new judicial file in a corruption case with political overtones that fueled tensions between Washington and Caracas.
Alex Saab’s lawyers presented the document to the federal court in Miami on Thursday, a few hours after the Cape Verde prosecutor’s office granted house arrest to the 49 -year-old Colombian, who is trying to avoid his extradition to the United States on charges of alleged money laundering.
US officials believe that Saab keeps numerous secrets about how Maduro, his family and his top advisers allegedly diverted millions of dollars in government contracts while the oil-rich nation is starving. He was arrested last June when his plane made a stop to refuel during a flight to Tehran, where he had apparently been sent to negotiate agreements that would allow the exchange of Venezuelan gold for Iranian gasoline.
The government of the former president of The United States Donald Trump made the extradition of Saab a priority issue, and even sent a Navy warship to the African archipelago to monitor the captive and discourage any plan by Venezuela to try to get him out of prison.
In Caracas, the process against Saab is considered a veiled attempt at regime change and is likely to complicate any attempt by Maduro to start from scratch with the Joe Biden government, such as keeping several Americans imprisoned in Caracas, including six executives Venezuelan-American oil tankers and two former Green Berets caught in a failed raid to capture Maduro.
Lawyers for the firm Baker & amp; Hostetler filed a motion to withdraw the charges from the United States, claiming that Saab has immunity from the multiple diplomatic posts it has held in the Maduro government since 2018.
As evidence, presented letters signed by Maduro’s foreign minister allegedly accrediting Saab as a special envoy for humanitarian aid, in addition to a resolution, signed last month, appointing him as Venezuela’s alternate permanent representative to the African Union in Ethiopia.
In addition, there is a letter, addressed to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in which Maduro asks the Supreme Leader of Iran to help Saab to obtain an “urgent” shipment of 5 million barrels of gasoline after the arrival of others previously from also from the Islamic Republic. In another apparent diplomatic note, from the Iranian embassy in Caracas, he refers to the upcoming “official” visit by Saab and a request for the delivery of Iranian-made medicines.
“The arrival of the ships of Iranian gasoline has meant a historic milestone in our bilateral relations and decidedly sealed the love of the Venezuelan people for Iran, “Maduro wrote in the June 11 letter that Saab was supposedly carrying at the time of his arrest. “The collective emotion of Venezuela when the ships carrying the Iranian flag arrived in our jurisdictional waters, indicated a victory in relations between sovereign States, never subjected to any empire.”
In 2019, the Trump administration recognized opposition leader Juan Guaidó as the legitimate leader of Venezuela, closed the US embassy in Caracas and imposed harsh oil sanctions on Maduro’s socialist government.
Saab’s lawyers allege that the campaign was idense against Maduro, who was also accused in a federal court in New York for alleged drug trafficking, does not replace international law.
“The irregular diplomatic relations between the United States and Venezuela do not allow the Court to ignore the Convention of Vienna “, affirmed the lawyers of Saab in his writing. Whatever your opinion of mr. Maduro, the United States continues to recognize Venezuela as a sovereign member of the community of nations, and international law requires it to respect the sovereign rights of that state, including sending diplomatic emissaries to any other country in the world. “
The Miami federal prosecutor’s office charged Saab in 2019 on money laundering charges related to an alleged bribery scheme that obtained more than 350 million dollars from a housing project of the Venezuelan executive for people with low incomes that were never built.
The motion cites the process of the end of the decade of 1980 against former Panamanian leader Manuel Noriega to argue that Saab should be able to present their defense even before extradition. Normally, defendants considered fugitives are prohibited from speaking before a federal court.
Saab’s legal team also challenged the jurisdiction of the US courts, noting that Saab has not traveled to Es the United States in almost three decades and that the proceeds of the alleged plot were deposited in bank accounts in Miami belonging to other unidentified alleged conspirators.
“The United States has only a minimal alleged connection with the alleged crimes”
The Venezuelan government has vehemently opposed Saab’s prosecution, seen as a veiled attempt at regime change by the Trump administration, and ordered him to resist his extradition to at all costs.
“We have well-founded reasons to believe that, in the event of being extradited to the United States, you will be pressured by any method, legitimate or not, for the disclosure of said information, which would mean a great risk for our country, “said a letter signed by the Foreign Minister, Jorge Arreaza, included in Thursday’s documents.
A court in Cape Verde ruled this month that Saab could be extradited to the United States , although it must be the
On Thursday, the prosecutor’s office of the island nation justified its decision to grant him house arrest while the appeal process progresses because it turned out that he had already been detained longer.
Saab’s legal team for the extradition case, led by the Spanish jurist Baltasar Garzón, celebrated the decision as very late, noting that having spent seven months incarcerated in “inhuman conditions” had exacerbated his health problems. Under house arrest, Saab can now receive adequate treatment, the lawyers said in a statement.
“We will continue to appeal and demand that the inviolability of diplomatic agent Alex Saab be respected and that extradition to the US be rejected. because it is unfounded and because it is due to a clear political persecution in the fight against a greater objective, such as the Government of Venezuela, “Garzón said in a note.
The journalist from The Associated Press Scott Smith in Caracas contributed to this report.
Goodman is on Twitter at: @APJoshGoodman