US: Judge denies Saab immunity request

Miami (HPD) — A federal judge in South Florida on Friday rejected the diplomatic immunity claims of an ally of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro and ruled that he must continue the judicial process in which he faces accusations of laundering hundreds of millions of dollars. .

In a 15-page court order, Judge Robert Scola found that Alex Saab failed to prove that international law recognizes temporary immunities for diplomatic agents on temporary missions. But even if there were such transit immunity, the magistrate said in his brief, “it would require the consent of the state in which he was transiting, which Saab has not demonstrated either.”

Saab, who has been detained since he was extradited more than two years ago, is accused of having laundered hundreds of millions of dollars that he obtained by paying bribes to Venezuelan officials in exchange for contracts for food programs and for the construction of houses. between 2011 and 2015. Some $350 million of those corrupt deals passed through the United States, according to the indictments.

The Colombian businessman has argued that he cannot face charges in the United States because he enjoyed diplomatic immunity at the time of his arrest. He has pleaded not guilty and claims he was on a humanitarian mission en route to Iran when his plane stopped in Cape Verde to refuel.

If found guilty, he could face up to 20 years in prison.

The judge’s decision comes three days after a hearing in which he had already questioned Saab’s position. At the time, Scola asked defense attorneys why he should accept the claim of diplomatic immunity since the United States does not recognize the legitimacy of the Maduro government, which he supposedly represented when he was detained.

In his written resolution, the magistrate said that the title of “special envoy” only reflects a designation that the Maduro regime gave to Saab.

With the allegation of the supposed immunity, what Saab was looking for was for the judge to close the case. He formally asked for it in a motion filed in October.

Saab’s defense has demanded the businessman’s immediate release, alleging that he was illegally “kidnapped” in Cape Verde at the request of the United States while traveling as an envoy from Venezuela to Iran.

But the prosecution challenged those allegations and questioned the validity of the documents presented by Saab, including the passport and letters of diplomatic certification. For the US government, which is the one that presented the accusations, none of the evidence presented by Saab showed that it had a long-term diplomatic mission protected by the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations.

Judge Scola recalled in his ruling that Saab met from 2016 with US federal agents in an apparent attempt to avoid legal charges. Thus, in June 2018, it signed a cooperation agreement with the DEA and in February 2019 it made four payments for a total of 12.5 million dollars to a bank account controlled by the anti-drug agency to return profits obtained through its activity. criminal, indicated the magistrate in the letter.

Saab alleges that he was designated Maduro’s “special envoy” in April 2018. He was prosecuted in July 2019 and remained a fugitive until his arrest almost a year later in Cape Verde.

The prosecution maintains that he was traveling to Iran as a businessman and not as a diplomat, together with executives from the state-owned company Petróleos de Venezuela as part of an agreement in which Iran sent gasoline additives.

“Saab’s own evidence shows this as well,” the judge said in his order. “They show the withdrawal and delivery of 80 gold deposit bars from various Venezuelan banks in exchange for gasoline from Iran.”

After the news of Saab’s arrest, Scola said, the Maduro regime sought ways to avoid extradition to the United States by exploiting diplomatic immunity law.

“The evidence suggests that the Maduro regime and its accomplices have fabricated documents to cover up Saab Morán in a diplomatic suit,” in an effort to exploit the diplomatic immunity law, the judge considered. “The court is not convinced that the credential that Saab Morán invoked to support his claim to diplomatic status is legitimate.”

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