By Luc Cohen and Alexandra Ulmer
-A close ally of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro will now be arraigned on charges of money laundering in federal court in Miami on Nov. 15, two weeks later than originally planned, in a case that has further strained already frayed relations between Washington and Caracas.
Prosecutors say Alex Saab, a Colombia-born businessman and top dealmaker for Maduro’s socialist government, siphoned around $350 million out of Venezuela via the United States as part of a bribery scheme linked to Venezuela’s state-controlled exchange rate.
One of Saab’s lawyers, Henry Bell, told Reuters last week that his client would plead not guilty at an arraignment that had been originally scheduled for Monday.
On Monday, Bell had asked U.S. Magistrate Edwin G. Torres for the arraignment to be postponed by two weeks.
“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.
Venezuela’s opposition has said it hopes Saab will tell U.S. law enforcement agencies what he knows about any criminal activity by top Venezuelan officials, as well as the government’s schemes for evading U.S. sanctions, which were aimed at ousting Maduro.
Washington has called Maduro a corrupt dictator and blamed him for the once-wealthy OPEC nation’s economic collapse.
Saab was extradited in October from Cape Verde, where he was arrested in 2020 when his plane stopped to refuel.
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.
In response to the extradition, Maduro’s government last month suspended nascent negotiations with the opposition.
Maduro’s allies have characterized Washington’s pursuit of Saab as part of an “economic war” on Venezuela being waged by the U.S. government.
The U.S.-backed 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.
In a Jan. 21 court filing, Saab’s attorneys 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 attorneys wrote.
(Reporting by Alexandra Ulmer in San Francisco and Luc Cohen in New YorkEditing by Mark Porter and Matthew Lewis)