Nov. 1 (Reuters) – A close ally of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro will now be on trial for money laundering in Miami federal court on Nov. 15, two weeks later than originally planned, in a case that has further strained relations already frayed between Washington and Caracas.
Prosecutors say Alex Saab, a Colombian-born businessman and main negotiator for Maduro’s socialist government, embezzled around $ 350 million from Venezuela via the United States as part of a corruption program linked to the Venezuelan state controlled exchange rate.
One of Saab’s attorneys, Henry Bell, told Reuters last week his client would plead not guilty to an indictment originally scheduled for Monday.
On Monday, Bell asked US magistrate Edwin G. Torres to postpone the indictment for two weeks.
“Because we have not been able to see Mr. Saab personally at the FDC (Federal Detention Center) as he is in quarantine, we respectfully request that the indictment be upheld,” Bell said. “We expect to see Mr. Saab this week as we believe he will be released from quarantine.”
Bell later told Reuters that “all new inmates at the facility are being quarantined” due to Bureau of Prisons rules.
The Venezuelan opposition has said it hopes Saab will tell US law enforcement what it knows about any criminal activity by senior Venezuelan officials, as well as the government’s plans to evade US sanctions, which were aimed at ousting Maduro. Read more
Washington called Maduro a corrupt dictator and blamed him for the economic collapse of the once wealthy OPEC country.
Saab was extradited in October from Cape Verde, where he was arrested in 2020 when his plane stopped to refuel.
After the arrest, the Venezuelan government said Saab had obtained Venezuelan citizenship and was appointed a diplomat to negotiate shipments of fuel and humanitarian aid from Iran.
In response to the extradition, Maduro’s government suspended nascent negotiations with the opposition last month.
Maduro’s allies characterized Washington’s pursuit of Saab as part of an “economic war” against Venezuela led by the US government.
The US-backed opposition, which called on Maduro to resume talks, said Saab had become rich as a result of the deals he made with the government and had done nothing to alleviate the suffering of the Venezuelan citizens.
In a court filing filed on Jan.21, lawyers for Saab called the bribery accusations a “suspected cryptic ploy” and said he had denied the allegations.
“Mr. Saab denies this scheme and all allegations in the indictment against him or any conspiracy, corruption or money laundering of any kind,” his lawyers wrote.
Reporting by Alexandra Ulmer in San Francisco and Luc Cohen in New York Editing by Mark Porter and Matthew Lewis