By Vasco Cotovio and Holly Yan, CNN, and Marlon Sorto, CNN en Español
An alleged financier to embattled Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro has been extradited from Cape Verde to the US and is scheduled to appear in court Monday, the US Department of Justice said Sunday.
Colombian businessman Alex Saab is expected to make his initial court appearance at 1 p.m. ET before US Magistrate Judge John J. O’Sullivan of the US District Court for the Southern District of Florida, DOJ spokesperson Nicole Navas Oxman said in a statement Sunday.
The US alleges Saab was behind a corruption network involving a government-subsidized food program called CLAP that allowed Maduro and his allies to steal hundreds of millions of dollars from the Venezuelan people while also using food as a form of social control.
“Rather than ensure that this vulnerable population receives the food it desperately needs, the regime uses the CLAP program as a political tool to reward support and punish political criticism,” the US Treasury Department said in 2019.
“By offering food through this program, the former regime is able to maintain its influence because many Venezuelan citizens do not have enough money to buy food and therefore depend on the rations CLAP provides to survive.”
The Treasury Department also accused Saab of personally profiting from overvalued contracts.
Saab had been sanctioned by the US Treasury Department and had been sought by the DOJ’s Southern District of Florida over money laundering charges.
Due to his indictment in the US, an Interpol red notice was issued. In June 2020, Saab was detained while traveling from Venezuela to Iran when his jet stopped to refuel in Cape Verde, an African island nation.
Earlier this year, Saab told CNN he feared he would be treated inhumanely if he were extradited to the US.
He was extradited on Saturday, and the DOJ said Saab’s extradition was “conducted in full compliance with all relevant Cabo Verdean laws and court rulings.”
“The U.S. Department of Justice expresses our gratitude to the Government of Cabo Verde for its assistance and perseverance with this complex case and admiration for the professionalism of Cabo Verde’s judicial system,” the DOJ statement said.
But Saab’s lawyer alleged in a video statement Saturday that Saab had been “kidnapped” by the United States and that his extradition “violated” the rules of Cape Verde’s internal law and the international law.
Hours after Saab’s extradition, five US citizens and a permanent resident known as the “CITGO 6” who had been detained in Venezuela were picked up by the country’s intelligence service — apparently in retaliation for Saab’s extradition.
The CITGO 6 consists of former executives of CITGO Petroleum Corporation — José Ángel Pereira, Gustavo Cárdenas, Jorge Toledo, José Luis Zambrano, Tomeu Vadell and Alirio José Zambrano.
They were arrested in Caracas in 2017 on embezzlement charges and had been under house arrest since May. They have denied the charges.
After being picked up by the Venezuelan intelligence service SEBIN, the men were taken to Helicoide prison in Caracas, lawyers Jesús Loretto and María Alejandra Poleo told CNN on Sunday.
The US State Department denounced the imprisonment of “six wrongfully detained Americans in Venezuela.”
“These six Americans and their families have suffered long enough,” the State Department said in a statement Sunday. “The United States continues to call for their immediate release and return to the United States.”
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Akanksha Sharma and Isa Soares contributed to this report.