Venezuelan ally Maduro appears in court over corruption charges

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A businessman who prosecutors say was a major bribe in Nicolás Maduro’s inner circle first appeared in Miami federal court on Monday after a weekend extradition that further strained relations between the United States and the socialist government of Venezuela.

Alex Saab’s legs trembled nervously as he sat as he waited, handcuffed and in an orange jumpsuit, the start of the hearing, which took place via Zoom with more than 350 journalists, stunned opponents of Maduro and members of the Saab family in attendance.

Saab’s extradition to the United States from Cape Verde, where he was arrested 16 months ago, has already ricocheted everywhere.

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Just hours after Saab was placed on a Justice Department plane on Saturday, Maduro’s government suspended negotiations with the US-backed Venezuelan opposition. He also returned to prison six American oil executives whom he accuses of corruption. They had been placed under house arrest in another politically charged case marked by allegations of unjustified detention.

The Maduro government has called Saab a diplomatic envoy and spared no effort to free the Colombian-born businessman, who was arrested under a US warrant in the African archipelago while he was on a fuel stop en route to Iran.

On Monday, he was joined by the Russian ally, whose ambassador in Caracas tweeted his “strongest and most emphatic protest against the kidnapping” of Saab.

Saab, 49, raised his bushy eyebrows but remained largely silent when investigating magistrate John O’Sullivan, through an interpreter, informed him that he was charged with eight counts of money laundering. The judge has scheduled another hearing in two weeks where Saab will have the opportunity to plead.

Saab was indicted in 2019 on money laundering charges for allegedly bribing Venezuelan officials and forging import documents to pocket more than $ 350 million in a social housing project. On the same day as his indictment, he was sanctioned by the Trump administration for allegedly using a network of shell companies spanning the globe – Turkey, Hong Kong, Mexico and the United Arab Emirates – to hide the windfall profits of overvalued food contracts.

But Saab’s connections extend much deeper.

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Among those the United States claims to have paid to win government contracts are Maduro’s sons-in-law. Commonly known in Venezuela as “Los Chamos”, slang for “the children,” the three adult children of First Lady Cilia Flores from a previous relationship are themselves under investigation by prosecutors Miami for several years, two people familiar with the US investigation told The Associated Press.

Michael Penfold, a Venezuelan political analyst, said Saab’s extradition is likely to freeze all attempts to bridge the deep mistrust between the Maduro government and its opponents. The two sides have been meeting since August with the aim of jointly resolving the current humanitarian crisis in the country, which has led more than 5 million people to flee the country in recent years, and pave the way for a democratic opening from regional elections next month. .

FILE PHOTO: A woman walks past a mural supporting the release of businessman Alex Saab, who was arrested in Cape Verde for money laundering for the government of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, in Caracas , Venezuela, September 9, 2021. REUTERS / Leonardo Fernandez Viloria / File Photo
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FILE PHOTO: A woman walks past a mural supporting the release of businessman Alex Saab, who was arrested in Cape Verde for money laundering for the government of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, in Caracas , Venezuela, September 9, 2021. REUTERS / Leonardo Fernandez Viloria / File Photo

The Biden administration, which has tried to downplay the political impact of Saab’s extradition, is key to the success of these talks. After years of crackdown on its opponents, the cash-strapped Venezuelan government is considering granting more freedoms in exchange for the US rescinding crippling sanctions put in place against one of the world’s largest producers of oil to the world by the Trump administration, which was determined to oust Maduro.

“Saab’s extradition reignites animosity between Venezuela and the United States,” said Penfold, a global researcher at the Wilson Center in Washington. “We are going back to the old dynamic of mutual recrimination that the negotiations had started to soften, but with the difference that now these charges are part of that dynamic.”

Norway, which is sponsoring the fledgling talks, called for restraint after Maduro’s government said it would not travel to Mexico City for the next round of talks, which were due to take place this week.

“We will continue to work so that the parties continue, as soon as possible, their important efforts at the negotiating table for an inclusive political solution for the benefit of the Venezuelan people,” the Norwegian foreign ministry said in a statement.

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In Caracas’ historic Bolivar square, Saab’s wife, a former Italian model, led a small rally of a few dozen government supporters on Sunday to protest what they see as Saab’s “kidnapping”.

“I have no intention of lying to favor the United States,” said a nervous-looking Camilla Fabri, reading a letter she said was written by her husband. “I have not committed any crime, in the United States or in any country.”

Hours later, Maduro himself entered the fray, claiming that the United States – and not his government – had dealt a “death blow” to the dialogue effort and the elections for governor. next month, who pit a bitterly divided opposition against a list of pro-Maduro candidates backed by the central government.

He also claimed, without any evidence, that interrogators in Cape Verde used electric shocks to torture Saab and extract false confessions from him, which ultimately never came to fruition.

“They wanted to force him to become a monster, a false accuser against Venezuela, against me and against the Bolivarian revolution – something he never allowed,” Maduro told state television.

The extrajudicial maneuvers were particularly troubling for the families of nine Americans imprisoned in Caracas. Over the weekend, they issued an open letter calling on the White House to stay engaged on Venezuela.

“Mr President, we are frustrated by the lack of action by your administration,” said the families in the letter, which was written just before Saab’s extradition. “Those charged with protecting and returning falsely detained Americans have not even taken the first fundamental step of engaging directly with the Venezuelans who hold our loved ones.”

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Those jailed include six oil executives who worked for the Houston branch of Venezuelan state-owned oil giant PDVSA who were convicted and sentenced last year to lengthy prison terms for embezzling funds from a never-executed plan to refinancing of Citgo bonds. The families of the so-called Citgo 6 and the US government have vehemently dismissed the charges and view the men wrongly detained.

Hours after Saab’s extradition, security forces returned the oil executives to the infamous Helicoide prison where they have been held intermittently since being lured to Caracas in 2017 for a meeting in which they were arrested by masked policemen who stormed a conference hall where they were gathered. Also at the jail is former US Navy Matthew Heath, who is awaiting trial on weapons charges related to a suspected refinery sabotage scheme, and two former Caracas Green Berets are linked to a failed cross-border raid from Colombia. to overthrow Maduro.

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