US Justice postpones trial against Alex Saab

US Justice postpones trial against Alex Saab

The Colombian businessman, accused by Washington of being Nicolás Maduro’s main front man, had his first face-to-face hearing in Miami

The Alex Saab case extends to the United States. The 49-year-old Colombian businessman, accused by Washington of being Nicolás Maduro’s main front man , arrived in handcuffs for his first face-to-face hearing in federal court in Miami. In this Monday’s diligence, Judge Robert Scola has decided to postpone the start of the trial, originally scheduled for next January 3, until an appeal presented by the defense is resolved.

Saab’s lawyers argue that their client has diplomatic status and cannot be tried in the United States. The defense strategy appeals to the same argument that the Maduro government has made: they assure that Saab is a “ diplomatic agent ”, commissioned to obtain food and medicine in the midst of the US blockade of Venezuela and that for that reason it enjoys immunity. After years of denying any link with the Venezuelan businessman, the Chavista apparatus has made an effort to present him as the “deputy permanent representative” of the South American country before the African Union.

The Saab case is high profile due to the potential revelations that the alleged front man can make against the Chavista leadership, his businesses in the shadow of power and his financing channels from abroad through opaque channels. According to journalists who attended the court, Saab did not speak during the session. It was a “status” hearing, in which both parties are called, precisely, to see what status the case is and if there are conditions to start the trial.

Judge Scola has based his decision on the fact that, while the appeal is in progress, filed in a court of the State of Georgia, he cannot start the judicial process. Prosecutors have indicated that they requested legal assistance from Panama and have anticipated that they will make similar requests to Colombia and Ecuador, as well as possibly to Malta and Cape Verde, according to Joshua Goodman, a journalist with the Associated Press. The next hearing has been scheduled for January 7 to decide whether to start the trial or if there is a new postponement.

According to investigations carried out by EL PAÍS , the Venezuelan portal and other media based on the US investigations, Saab and its partners wove a network of ghost companies that passed through the five continents to triangulate operations and enrich themselves with the humanitarian operations front. Among the events with which the employer is linked are the fraud of the CLAP boxes(Local Supply and Production Committees), a Maduro program to distribute food boxes to the poorest sectors of Venezuela, but which included food of low nutritional quality and were managed at a premium. 

He also created schemes to trade oil, gold and other raw materials outside the international financial system to circumvent US sanctions against the Maduro regime. The United States also accuses him of offering bribes to Chavista officials abroad to gain preferential access to public tenders. The scheme of embezzlement of public funds reaches at least 350 million dollars, according to US prosecutors.

At the request of Washington, Saab was arrested in Cape Verde on June 12 last year and spent more than a year in a prison in the African archipelago before being extradited in mid-October. As part of the extradition agreement , the United States has dismissed seven of the eight charges against him and will currently only be tried for the crime of conspiracy to launder money. 

The original accusation dates from July 2019 and since then the case has been at the center of the diplomatic conflict between the White House and the Maduro government, which has turned its defense into a matter of state. His extradition, for example, dynamited the process of negotiations between Chavismo and the opposition that took place in Mexico until the second half of this year.

Expectations about what Saab can say or shut up are high, not only because of what it implies for the Venezuelan authorities. Its network is so extensive that its businesses have been investigated in Mexico, Brazil, Ecuador , Colombia, Switzerland and the United Kingdom, among other countries, and some people close to the case say that acts of corruption can affect businessmen and politicians from all over the world. the region.

A week ago, anticipation for those revelations took a hit. Judge Scola ordered that the documents and evidence presented by Saab in his defense be kept secret and without access to the public. It was a request from the Prosecutor’s Office agreed with the defense attorneys, on the grounds that if they are made public it may affect other criminal cases in progress. Saab pleaded not guilty in mid-November and faces up to 20 years in prison. The trial, with an expected duration of two weeks, still awaits a date to start.