By JOSHUA GOODMAN
MIAMI (AP) — A federal judge in Miami on Friday rejected attempts by a close ally of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro to shield himself from criminal charges, ruling Alex Saab isn’t entitled to diplomatic immunity in the U.S. and must stand trial on accusations of money laundering.
The l egal fight over Saab’s purported diplomatic status was being closely watched by Maduro’s socialist government, which has demanded the release of the Colombian-born businessman as part of furtive negotiations with the Biden administration.
The U.S. in 2019 stopped recognizing Maduro as Venezuela’s legitimate leader, and Judge Robert Scola cited that determination as a basis for rejecting Saab’s motion to dismiss the criminal charges.
He also sided with prosecutors who raised doubts about the legitimacy of several official Venezuelan credentials that Saab relied on to bolster his claim to diplomatic status — and questioned why he never mentioned his purported diplomatic status in several secret meetings with U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agents.
“The evidence suggests that the Maduro regime and its accomplices have fabricated documents to cloak Saab Moran in a diplomatic dress that does not befit him, all in an effort to exploit the law of diplomatic immunities and prevent his extradition to the United States,” the judge wrote.
Saab’s attorney said they intend to appeal.
For more than two years, almost since the time of his arrest in Africa on a U.S. warrant, Saab has insisted he is a Venezuelan diplomat targeted for his work helping his adopted homeland circumvent American economic sanctions.
Saab, 51, was pulled from a private jet in the summer of 2020 during a stop in Cape Verde en route to Iran, where he was heading to negotiate oil deals on behalf of Maduro’s government.
He is charged with conspiracy to commit money laundering tied to a bribery scheme that allegedly siphoned off $350 million through state contracts to build affordable housing for Venezuela’s government.
At a hearing Tuesday, Scola pressed Saab’s legal team of seven attorneys to explain why he should depart from the position taken by the U.S. State Department, which said Saab isn’t entitled to diplomatic immunity in the U.S.
The U.S. since 2019 has recognized opposition lawmaker Juan Guaido as Venezuela’s legitimate leader — a position repeatedly affirmed by U.S. federal courts in numerous lawsuits brought by unpaid creditors seeking to seize the country’s overseas oil assets.
Scola likened Saab’s situation to a hypothetical situation in which former President Donald Trump — who hasn’t recognized his loss in the 2020 election — were to issue passports with the supposed imprimatur of the U.S. government.
“It is clear that the United States does not recognize the Maduro regime to represent the official government of Venezuela,” Scola wrote. “Accordingly, any claim to diplomatic immunity asserted by a representative of the Maduro regime must also be considered illegitimate.”
Saab’s attorney’s presented as evidence what they claim are diplomatic notes exchanged between Iran and Venezuela discussing what was to be Saab’s third trip to Iran. At the time of his arrest, Saab was also purportedly carrying a sealed letter from Maduro to Iran’s supreme leader seeking his full support for a planned deal to import fuel at a time of long gas lines in Venezuela.
“It’s like if you were to kidnap someone, bring them to your home and then charge them with trespassing,” Lee Casey, one of Saab’s attorney, said at this week’s hearing.
But prosecutors presented evidence that some of the documents bolstering Saab’s claim — among them a Venezuelan diplomatic passport and a presidential decree published in Venezuela’s Official Gazette — were possibly falsified.
“At best he was a courier,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Alex Kramer said during proceedings. “But being a courier of diplomatic letters does not make one a diplomat.”
Scola seemed to agree. He also found that even if Saab was a properly appointed special envoy, he would not be entitled to in-transit immunity under international treaties and conventions that protect only members of permanent diplomatic missions. Doing so would make a defendant automatically “untouchable” in the U.S. so long as he had a free pass from another country making him the head of a temporary mission, he said.
“To immunize heads of temporary missions in the way Saab Moran suggests would open the door to the abuse of diplomatic immunities in a way that could seriously frustrate cross-border law enforcement activities,” Scola wrote.
Saab’s attorney said they intend to appeal to the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which in April heard arguments on the issue of Saab’s purported diplomatic status before deciding to send the case back to Scola to first evaluate the factual evidence.
“We have put forward compelling and unrebutted factual evidence that substantiates his status,” attorney David Rivkin said. “We are confident that, as a result, Mr. Alex Saab Moran’s diplomatic immunity will be recognized and vindicated.”
Saab was initially held up as a trophy by the Trump administration, which made no secret of its efforts to oust Maduro, who himself is wanted on U.S. drug trafficking charges.
But the criminal case has become a major sticking point as the Biden administration seeks to improve relations with Venezuela and tap new oil supplies to make up for a loss of exports from Russia following sanctions over its invasion of Ukraine
The tug of war has been further complicated by the revelation that Saab, prior to his arrest, had been signed up as an informant by the DEA and had been providing it with information about corruption in Maduro’s inner circle.
For months, speculation had been swirling that Saab could walk free as part of some sort of prisoner swap for several Americans detained in Caracas. A similar deal for two nephews of Maduro convicted in New York on drug charges secured the release in October of seven other Americans detained in Venezuela. The Biden administration has insisted that no such negotiations are taking place.
Joshua Goodman on Twitter: @APJoshGoodman