A South Florida federal judge on Tuesday questioned why he should accept the diplomatic immunity claim of an ally of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro if the United States does not recognize the legitimacy of the government he allegedly represented when he was detained.

After a nearly two-hour hearing in the federal courts in downtown Miami, Judge Robert Scola said that next week he will issue an order with his decision on the request to dismiss the case filed by Colombian businessman Alex Saab, whom the United States considered a figurehead for Maduro.

“The United States does not recognize the Maduro regime as the legitimate government of Venezuela,” Scola said, immediately asking why then he should validate Saab’s presumed diplomatic immunity. Scola said that since it is a government that is not recognized by Washington, neither are the documents it issues or its decisions.

Saab is accused of laundering hundreds of millions of dollars that he obtained by paying bribes to Venezuelan officials in exchange for contracts to build affordable housing. About $350 million of those corrupt businesses were taken out of Venezuela and passed through the United States, according to the indictments. Saab could face up to 20 years in prison if he is found guilty.

The businessman was extradited just over two years ago and has since argued that he cannot face charges in the United States because he enjoyed diplomatic immunity at the time of his arrest.

Saab has pleaded not guilty and claims he was on a humanitarian mission en route to Iran when his plane stopped in Cape Verde to refuel. His defense has demanded his immediate release considering that he was illegally “kidnapped” when he was traveling as a diplomatic representative from Venezuela to Iran.

With his words, the judge seemed to be closer to the position of the prosecution, which throughout the judicial process has refused to recognize Saab’s alleged diplomatic immunity.

At the hearing Saab looked calm sitting next to a team of more than five lawyers. He arrived handcuffed and with shackles on his ankles, but later, at the request of his defense, the judge accepted that the handcuffs be removed. He had his face covered by a mask, was dressed in a beige prison uniform and had headphones in his ears to listen to the Spanish translation of the hearing, which was conducted in English. He was silent the whole time.

Two of his lawyers, on the other hand, reiterated his request for Scola to dismiss the accusations and close the judicial file.

The government’s case against Saab is based “on a conspiracy theory based on speculation,” said Jonathan Barr, one of his legal representatives. He asked the judge to throw out the charges because Saab was a Venezuelan diplomatic envoy to Iran, saying that The United States knew this when he was detained while in transit to his mission.

Countering the prosecution’s position, another of Saab’s lawyers, Lee Casey, said the immunity stemmed from his being sent as a diplomatic representative and accepted by Iran as such, and had nothing to do with the United States.

But prosecutors said none of the evidence presented by Saab actually shows that he had a long-term diplomatic mission under the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations. They also questioned the validity of documents, such as letters certifying the quality of his representative or Saab’s own passport, and said that some of them did not even refer to Saab as a diplomat or envoy from Venezuela but simply as a citizen. Venezuelan.

“Mr. Saab could not have any immunity,” said Alexander J. Kramer, one of the Justice Department attorneys. “Mr. Saab was not a diplomatic official in 2020,” he assured.

Kramer also recalled that a Cape Verde court determined that Saab had no protection and agreed to extradite him. In addition, he said, the president of the United States has the authority to determine which government he recognizes as legitimate and considers neither Maduro nor his officials to be legitimate.

“This court should deny the motion” Saab filed to dismiss the charges, he said.

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