A top aide close to Venezuela's socialist government has been put on a flight from Cape Verde to the United States to face money laundering charges, a senior US official confirmed Saturday.
President Nicolas Maduro has blasted the US for “kidnapping” Colombian businessman and diplomat Alex Saab.
Saab's extradition was followed later by Venezuelan security forces picking up six American oil executives who have been under house arrest in another politically charged case.
Muduro's government also announced that it would suspend dialogue with the opposition after extradition of Alex Saab.
It’s unclear if the men — all of whom were convicted and sentenced last year to lengthy prison terms in a corruption case that the US says was marred by irregularities — were being returned to jail. A lawyer for the men said he doesn’t know where they were being taken.
The so-called Citgo 6, for the Houston subsidiary of Venezuela’s state owned oil company, were lured to Caracas in 2017 for a meeting when masked police busted into a conference room and took them into custody on embezzlement charges tied to a never-executed deal to refinance billions in Citgo bonds.
The apparent retaliatory move came after Saab was put on a chartered US Justice Department flight from Cape Verde, a West African archipelago, where he was arrested 16 months ago while making a stop on the way to Iran for what Maduro's government later described as a diplomatic humanitarian mission.
A US official, speaking on condition he not be named, confirmed the flight's departure. A public relations firm representing Saab said in an email that the Colombian businessman was taken from his home without his lawyers being notified.
Saab's arrival in the US is bound to complicate relations between Washington and Caracas, possibly disrupting fledgling talks between Maduro's government and its U.S.-backed opposition taking place in Mexico.
Maduro’s government has vehemently objected to Saab’s prosecution as a veiled attempt at regime change by Washington. US prosecutors say Saab amassed a fortune wheeling and dealing on behalf of the socialist government, which faces heavy US sanctions.
American authorities have been targeting Saab for years, believing he holds numerous secrets about how Maduro, the president's family and his top aides siphoned off millions of dollars in government contracts for food and housing amid widespread hunger in oil-rich Venezuela.
However his defenders, including Maduro's government as well as allies Russia and Cuba, consider his arrest illegal and maintain that Saab was a diplomatic envoy of the Venezuelan government and as such possesses immunity from prosecution while on official business.
In a statement Saturday, Venezuela’s government again denounced the “kidnapping” of Saab by the US government “in complicity with authorities in Cape Verde."
“The government of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela repudiates this grave violation of human rights against a Venezuelan citizen, invested as a diplomat and representative of our country before the world,” the statement said.
The argument failed to persuade Cape Verde's Constitutional Court, which last month authorized his extradition after a year of wrangling by Saab's legal team, which includes former Spanish judge Baltasar Garzón and BakerHostetler, one of the US' biggest firms.
Federal prosecutors in Miami indicted Saab in 2019 on money-laundering charges connected to an alleged bribery scheme that pocketed more than $350 million from a low-income housing project for the Venezuelan government.
Separately, Saab had been sanctioned by the previous Trump administration for allegedly utilizing a network of shell companies spanning the globe — in the United Arab Emirates, Turkey, Hong Kong, Panama, Colombia and Mexico — to hide huge profits from no-bid, overvalued food contracts obtained through bribes and kickbacks.
Some of Saab’s contracts were obtained by paying bribes to the adult children of Venezuelan first lady Cilia Flores, the Trump administration alleged. Commonly known in Venezuela as “Los Chamos,” slang for “the kids,” the three men are also under investigation by prosecutors in Miami for allegedly forming part of a scheme to siphon $1.2 billion from Venezuela’s state-owned oil company, two people familiar with the US investigation told The Associated Press.
But while in private U.S. officials have long described Saab as a front man for Maduro, he is not identified as such in court filings.
The previous Trump administration had made Saab’s extradition a top priority, at one point even sending a Navy warship to the African archipelago to keep an eye on the captive.
On Saturday Colombian President Ivan Duque lauded the extradition of Saab in a tweet, calling it a “triumph in the fight against drug trafficking, money laundering and corruption led by the dictatorship of Nicolas Maduro.”
In response, Venezuelan Vice President Delcy Rodiriguez tweeted that “Alex Saab is an innocent Venezuelan diplomat, a victim of kidnapping and human rights violations who has served our country faced with an immoral imperial blockade.”
However, the Biden administration has downplayed the importance of Saab's problems, saying he can defend himself in US courts and that his case shouldn't affect ongoing negotiations sponsored by Norway aimed at overcoming Venezuela's long running economic crisis and political tug of war.
The government last month appointed Saab to its negotiating team and fellow envoys arrived to Mexico carrying signs reading “Free Alex Saab.”