Colombian businessman Alex Saab, accused of having laundered hundreds of millions of dollars from corrupt deals with the Venezuelan government of Nicolás Maduro, pleaded not guilty on Monday in a court case that has further strained relations between the United States and the South American nation. .
“We formally presented a declaration of innocence,” said Saab’s lawyer, Neil Schuster, after expressing that he was the legal representative of the “diplomat of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela.”
It was the case’s first face-to-face hearing and Saab’s second court appearance in Miami, Florida, following his recent extradition from Cape Verde. Despite the judicial authorization for it to be made public, there were very few journalists and the public. A small group of young people remained outside the building, shouting their support for Saab.
The US prosecutor’s office accuses Saab of having amassed a fortune of more than $ 350 million after having paid bribes to Venezuelan officials and falsified documents to obtain contracts for the construction of affordable housing.
As part of an agreement with Cape Verde to extradite him, Washington withdrew seven of the eight accusations it initially faced, leaving only the one of conspiracy to launder money. If found guilty, he could face a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison.
Monday’s was a brief hearing of less than five minutes in which Saab did not speak and stood next to his defender on a podium in front of Judge Alicia Otazo Reyes. A few steps behind he was escorted by two constables from the bailiff’s service.
Dressed in beige prison pants and camisole, Saab took the elevator to the courtroom with five other inmates. He wore handcuffs on his wrists and ankles and covered his nose and mouth with a mask, a requirement due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Saab looked serious, his long hair pulled back.
Saab’s extradition from Cape Verde still strained the atmosphere between the United States and Venezuela, and interrupted the dialogue between the Maduro government and the Venezuelan opposition. Caracas had appointed the Colombian as its diplomatic representative in those talks in an attempt to avoid his extradition.
Now his lawyers in the United States claim that as a diplomat he has immunity.
The hearing, the first of this court case in person, took place after Judge Robert Scola rejected a request from Saab to limit the presence of the public and the press. In the first hearing, which was virtual by Zoom, more than 300 people were connected and the Colombian’s defense alleges that several of them transgressed the laws by taking photographs and videos that they later published on social networks. For this reason, the accused requested that the public could only participate by telephone, which was rejected by the judge, who ordered face-to-face hearings.
The courts cannot be accessed with telephones or electronic devices, except lawyers and authorized persons. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the vast majority of hearings are held virtually.
Venezuela alleges that Saab, whom the United States considers an alleged front man for Maduro, was one of its diplomats on a humanitarian mission en route to Iran when his plane was detained in Cape Verde while stopping to refuel.
But court documents from another case indicate that despite being presented as a character loyal to Maduro, he could have secretly betrayed the Venezuelan government for years and would have met with US officials before being indicted in 2019.
Caracas considers Saab a guardian of state secrets and has stated that any attempt to extract a confession from him could compromise the country’s national security.
It is not clear, however, how much power or influence the Maduro government could have to prevent Saab from sealing a plea deal with prosecutors in order to obtain a lighter sentence, in exchange for collaboration in the investigations.
The businessman is also involved in another court case related to the payment of bribes to obtain food and medicine supply contracts from the Maduro government. At least part of that food came from Mexico and was later sent to Venezuela with a premium.
Associated Press journalist Joshua Goodman contributed to this report.
This story was originally published on November 15, 2021 12:38 pm.