Venezuelan corruption businessman pleads not guilty – the Journal

Businessman accused of hijacking millions of Venezuela’s state contracts has pleaded not guilty in high-profile case that is straining Washington-Caracas relations

MIAMI (AP) – A businessman accused of embezzling millions of Venezuela’s state contracts pleaded not guilty on Monday in a high-profile case that is straining relations between Washington and Caracas.

Dressed in a beige jumpsuit, Alex Saab was tied by the legs to five other inmates as he entered the Miami federal courtroom for his arraignment.

His lawyer, Neil Schuster, addressed the court as a representative of the “diplomat of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela” and then pleaded not guilty. A small group of Venezuelan government supporters shouted “Free, Free Alex Saab” outside the courthouse during the proceedings.

Saab, 49, is accused of paying bribes to siphon off $ 350 million from state contracts to build housing for Venezuela’s socialist government. After seven counts were dismissed, he now faces a single count of conspiracy to commit money laundering punishable by up to 20 years in prison – the maximum authorized by Cape Verde when it agreed to extradite Saab to the United States last month.

Venezuela launched an all-out diplomatic offensive involving Russian and Cuban allies to come to Saab’s defense, arguing that the Colombian-born businessman was a diplomat on a special humanitarian mission in Iran when his plane was detained during a refueling stopover on the African archipelago.

“He was hunted down, kidnapped and tortured for helping Venezuela,” Maduro said at a book fair this month in Caracas, where he presented alongside Saab’s Italian wife a collection of letters that he allegedly wrote while detained in Cape Verde under an American warrant.

But new court records in a related case indicate that Saab, despite his portrayal of an anti-imperial revolutionary, may have secretly betrayed the Venezuelan government to U.S. officials for years.

The explosive revelation was contained in a sentencing memo drafted by attorneys for University of Miami professor Bruce Bagley, whom Saab hired to help with his son’s visa application and then used as a channel to conduct payments to lawyers who helped him contact the United States. federal investigators.

Saab, through a lawyer, said all of his activities have been blessed by Maduro’s government and that he has always been a “loyal citizen” of Venezuela.

But Bagley’s explanation follows the account of three people familiar with the Saab investigation who said they have repeatedly met with US federal law enforcement, including agents from the Drug Enforcement Administration, in Colombia and Australia. Europe before being charged in 2019. The three people spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity to discuss the meetings.

Venezuela views Saab as the keeper of state secrets and has said any attempt to extract a confession could jeopardize Venezuela’s national security.

But it’s unclear what effect Venezuelans have in preventing Saab from cooperating with federal investigators in exchange for a lighter sentence.

As Saab was flown to the United States on a Justice Department plane, Maduro’s government suspended ongoing negotiations in Mexico with the U.S.-backed Venezuelan opposition, accusing the Biden administration of seeking to sabotage the talks. Maduro’s government has also returned to prison six US oil executives whom it accuses of corruption. They had been placed under house arrest in another politically charged case marked by allegations of unjustified detention.

Meanwhile, the United States continues to put pressure on Saab.

Shortly after arriving in the United States, Miami prosecutors unveiled a new indictment accusing his longtime business partner, fellow Colombian Alvaro Pulido, of creating a network of shell companies around the world. – Turkey, Hong Kong, Mexico and the United Arab Emirates – to hide windfall profits and bribes from overvalued food contracts. Saab itself was sanctioned in 2019 for its role in the same alleged bribe program.

But Saab’s importance to Maduro’s government ran much deeper.

As the United States increased sanctions against Venezuela, it would have become the government’s primary mender with international relations to circumvent American restrictions. His trip to Iran, described as a humanitarian mission by Maduro, was to strike deals to sell the country’s crude oil in exchange for fuel and other much-needed goods.

___

Follow Goodman on Twitter: @APJoshGoodman


Source link

Comments are closed.