The Colombian businessman Alex Saab, accused of having laundered hundreds of millions of dollars from corrupt deals with the Venezuelan government of Nicolás Maduro, pleaded not guilty this Monday in a court case that has further strained relations between the United States and the South American nation.
Alex Saab did not speak, but his lawyer Neil Schuster told the court that he represented the “diplomat of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela” and pleaded not guilty.
US prosecutors accuse Saab of having amassed a fortune of more than 350 million dollars after having paid bribes to Venezuelan officials and falsified documents to obtain affordable housing construction contracts.
As part of an agreement with Cape Verde to be able to extradite him, Washington dropped seven of the eight accusations it initially faced, leaving only the one of conspiracy to launder money.. If found guilty, he could face a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison.
Saab’s extradition from Cape Verde still strained the atmosphere between the United States and Venezuela, and interrupted the dialogue between the Maduro government and the Venezuelan opposition.
The hearing, the first of this court case in person, took place after Judge Robert Scola rejected a request from Saab to limit the presence of the public and the press. In the first hearing, which was virtual by Zoom, more than 300 people were connected and the Colombian’s defense alleges that several of them transgressed the laws by taking photographs and videos that they later published on social networks. Because the defendant requested that the public only be able to participate by telephone, which was rejected by the judge, who ordered face-to-face hearings.
The courts cannot be accessed with telephones or electronic devices, except lawyers and authorized persons. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the vast majority of hearings are held virtually.
Saab, 49, faces a sentence of about 20 years if he is found guilty of the only charge he has in the Miami (Florida) court, a sentence that can be reduced if he reaches an agreement with the Prosecutor’s Office.
The Chavista regime alleges that Saab, whom the United States considers an alleged front man for Maduro, was one of its diplomats on a humanitarian mission en route to Iran when his plane was stopped in Cape Verde while stopping to refuel.
But court documents from another case indicate that despite being presented as a character loyal to Maduro, he could have secretly betrayed the Venezuelan government for years and would have met with US officials before being indicted in 2019.
Saab has said it has nothing to collaborate with the United States, as defendants often do in order to obtain a lighter sentence.
The businessman is also involved in another court case related to the payment of bribes to obtain food and medicine supply contracts from the Maduro government. At least part of that food came from Mexico and was later sent to Venezuela with a premium.
(With information from AP)
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