West African court allows extradition to US of Venezuelan
LISBON, Portugal (AP) — Cape Verde’s Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that a businessman close to Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro who was arrested last year in the West African country can be extradited to the United States to face money-laundering charges, a lawyer said.
Geraldo Almeida, one of the Cape Verde attorneys representing Alex Saab in his fight against extradition, said his legal team would appeal the decision at the country’s Constitutional Court.
“We’re hopeful the Constitutional Court will overturn the Supreme Court’s decision,” Almeida told The Associated Press by telephone.
Cape Verde, a small island chain off West Africa that was once a Portuguese colony, arrested the Colombian-born businessman last June when his jet made a refueling stop on a flight to Iran.
Saab’s attorneys argue that their client is immune from prosecution as a result of the many diplomatic posts he has held for Maduro’s government since 2018.
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.
Almeida, the lawyer, told the AP that the Constitutional Court will have to resolve the differences between the Supreme Court’s decision and a ruling earlier this month by a court belonging to the Economic Community of West African States, or ECOWAS, to which Cape Verde belongs.
That regional court instructed Cape Verde to drop its extradition proceedings against Saab and pay him compensation.
“We believe it falls to the Constitutional Court to settle this legal imbroglio,” Almeida said.
“Our position, which we will continue to defend, is that the extradition has a political motive and that there is no guarantee that (Saab) won’t be handed a life sentence in the United States,” he said.
If a suspect faces a possible life sentence or a death sentence, Cape Verde’s Constitution forbids extradition.
Almeida said an appeal will be filed in coming days. He did not know how long the Constitutional Court might take to issue a decision.
The ECOWAS court in its ruling mostly rejected Saab’s argument that he enjoyed immunity as a special envoy of Maduro’s government. It also noted that Saab wasn’t on the San Marino-registered jet’s passenger list when it stopped in Cape Verde, preferring to keep secret his mission shuttling between two countries heavily sanctioned by the U.S.
However, it rebuked Cape Verde for allegedly not having an Interpol-issued Red Alert when it arrested Saab, and said his jailing also violated the country’s laws against arbitrary detention.
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 that was never built.
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.
Saab’s 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.
By BARRY HATTON