US court hears testimony on diplomatic status of ally of Venezuela’s Maduro

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A US court on Monday began hearing testimony from Venezuelan officials on the diplomatic status of Alex Saab, an ally of President Nicolas Maduro who is in a Miami jail awaiting trial on a charge of money laundering.

Saab’s attorneys have asked US District Judge Robert Scola to dismiss the charge, arguing Saab was on a diplomatic mission to Iran to buy fuel and humanitarian supplies when he was arrested while his plane refueled in Cape Verde islands in the Atlantic Ocean.

US prosecutors said Saab, a Colombia-born businessman who was extradited in 2021 from Cape Verde, siphoned around $350 million out of Venezuela via the United States as part of a scheme that involved bribing Venezuelan government officials.

Foreign ministry archive official Maria Gonzalez appeared via Zoom at the hearing and when shown documents referring to Saab as a diplomat, she described them as authentic.

“It is a letter that Minister Jorge Arreaza grants to Mr. Alex Saab where he gives his character as a special envoy to carry out negotiations for the purchase of food and medicine,” said Gonzalez, referring to the former foreign minister.

Prosecutors said Saab should not be recognized as a diplomat and they dispute the veracity of documents provided by the defense.

Prosecutors said a digital copy of an Official Gazette, a government publication that records Venezuelan government appointments, was altered to include his designation as a diplomat and that the original document makes no such reference.

Evidence provided by Saab’s defense at best showed he had the status of a “special mission” diplomat and that does not provide diplomatic immunity under the Vienna Convention, prosecutors said.

Maduro’s allies have characterized Washington’s pursuit of Saab as part of an “economic war” on Venezuela being waged by the US government. Washington considers Maduro’s 2018 re-election as a fraud and the following year imposed oil and financial sanctions on the country intended to oust him.

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