MIAMI (AP) — A federal judge in Miami on Thursday rejected a request by a prominent ally of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro to dismiss money laundering charges, ruling that he must first surrender to U.S. authorities before he can argue his claim of diplomatic immunity.
The ruling means that U.S. extradition proceedings against businessman Alex Saab will continue.
Cape Verde arrested the Colombian-born businessman in June on a U.S. warrant when his jet made a refueling stop on a flight to Iran. The country’s Supreme Court on Wednesday ruled in favor of the U.S. extradition request although Saab’s attorneys said they plan to appeal.
U.S. officials believe Saab holds numerous secrets about how Maduro, his family and top aides allegedly siphoned off millions of dollars in government contracts amid widespread hunger in the oil-rich nation. At the time of his arrest, he was allegedly traveling to Tehran to negotiate deals to exchange Venezuelan gold for Iranian gasoline.
Even before an eventual extradition, Saab’s attorneys had been trying to get the U.S. charges dismissed.
On Monday, his New York-based lawyer, David Rivkin of Baker & Hostetler, argued in federal court that the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations affords his client immunity from prosecution owing to the multiple diplomatic posts he’s held for Maduro’s government since 2018.
Judge Robert Scola was unpersuaded and in Thursday’s ruling rejecting Saab’s motion said he sees no reason to make an exception to longstanding rules denying fugitives access to U.S. courts before they surrender to U.S. authorities.
“It is worth repeating: if Saab Moran wishes to raise ‘fundamental’ challenges to the indictment, he may physically appear in this district as the Government has repeatedly requested,” Scola wrote.
Scola’s ruling comes days after a regional court in West Africa ordered Saab’s immediate release, finding authorities in Cape Verde didn’t have an Interpol-issued Red Alert when they arrested Saab and that his jailing violated the country’s laws against arbitrary detention.
Cape Verde said it does not recognize the jurisdiction of the Nigeria-based court belonging to the Economic Community of West African States, or ECOWAS.
The 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.
In turn, Maduro’s government has vehemently objected to Saab’s prosecution as a veiled attempt at regime change by the U.S. government and has ordered him to resist extradition at all costs.
His continued detention is likely to complicate any effort by Maduro to seek a fresh start with the Biden administration, as is the continued imprisonment of several Americans in Caracas, including six Venezuelan-American oil executives and two former Green Berets caught in a failed raid seeking to capture Maduro.