A judge in the United States has dismissed several money laundering charges against Alex Saab, an ally of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, but kept in place one count of conspiracy to commit money laundering.
The order was issued on Monday by Robert Scola, a US district judge based in Florida. The conspiracy charge carries a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison.
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In a case that has strained already frayed relations between the US and Venezuela, prosecutors accuse Saab, 49, of siphoning approximately $350m out of Venezuela via the US as part of a bribery scheme linked to Venezuela’s state-controlled exchange rate.
Maduro’s allies say Washington’s pursuit of Saab, a Colombia-born businessman and top dealmaker for the Venezuelan government, is part of an “economic war” on Venezuela being waged by the US government.
In a January 21 court filing, Saab’s lawyers called the corruption charges a “cryptically alleged scheme” and said he denied the allegations.
“Mr. Saab denies this scheme and all allegations of the indictment concerning it or any conspiracy, bribery, or money laundering of any kind,” his lawyers wrote, according to records.
Saab was extradited to the US last month from Cape Verde, where he was detained in mid-2020 on a US warrant when his plane stopped to refuel.
In Monday’s filing, US prosecutors requested that seven of the initial eight charges contained in a July 2019 indictment against Saab be dropped to comply with assurances that officials made to the government of Cape Verde when seeking his extradition.
Prosecutors said officials promised Cape Verde that Saab would only be charged on a single count to comply with the country’s laws regarding the maximum term of imprisonment.
One of Saab’s lawyers, Henry Bell, told the Reuters news agency last week that his client would plead not guilty at an arraignment that had been originally scheduled for Monday but was postponed to November 15. He will be arraigned in federal court in Miami.
“Because we have been unable to personally see Mr Saab at FDC (federal detention center) because he’s in quarantine, we’re respectfully requesting a continuance of the arraignment,” Bell said. “We do expect to see Mr Saab this week because we believe he’ll be released from quarantine.”
Bell later told Reuters that “all new inmates at the facility are quarantined” due to Bureau of Prisons rules.
Following the arrest, Venezuela’s government said Saab had been granted Venezuelan citizenship and had been named a diplomat to negotiate shipments of fuel and humanitarian aid from Iran.
But in response to the extradition, Maduro’s government last month suspended nascent negotiations with the country’s opposition, which is backed by the US.
The Venezuelan opposition, which has called on Maduro to resume the talks, has said Saab became wealthy as a result of the deals he made with the government and did nothing to relieve the suffering of Venezuela’s citizens.
The opposition has said it hopes Saab will tell US law enforcement agencies what he knows about any criminal activity by top Venezuelan officials, as well as the government’s schemes for evading US sanctions, which were aimed at removing Maduro.