Court of Appeal thwarts Maduro’s claim for diplomatic status

MIAMI – A federal appeals body has thwarted attempts by an ally of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro to be recognized as a foreign diplomat, leaving it to a lower court to decide for now whether he is immune from prosecution.

The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals Panel on Monday did not rule on the merits of businessman Alex Saab’s argument that his detention during a fuel stop on his way to Iran violated US law and numerous international protection diplomats.

Instead, it said it was an issue best decided by the Miami federal judge overseeing the criminal case against Saab, meaning he could take up the matter at a later date.

“The parties did not have an opportunity to fully develop the records, and the district court did not have an opportunity to consider the evidence relating to Saab Moran’s allegation,” the appellate panel said in its brief decision. “Accordingly, we are remitting the case to the District Court for a first instance determination of whether Saab Moran is a foreign diplomat and immune from prosecution.”


Saab’s lawyers have argued that he traveled to Iran as the duly appointed special envoy of Maduro’s socialist government when he was arrested in Cape Verde almost two years ago on a US warrant. They have presented letters from Maduro’s foreign minister to Iran’s supreme leader and a diplomatic note from the Iranian embassy in Caracas backing their claim.

But prosecutors have questioned the authenticity of these documents, pointing out that the State Department has never accepted Saab’s alleged status as a diplomat. Indeed, in 2019 the US recognized opposition leader Juan Guaidó as Venezuela’s legitimate leader, although more recently the Biden government has taken steps to work with Maduro, who has clung to power in the face of tough US oil sanctions.

“This is a ploy devised by a rogue state to avoid prosecution,” said Jeremy Sanders, a Justice Department attorney in Washington, during a hearing last month.


Saab’s attorneys did not comment on the verdict.

US officials claim Saab was among a cohort of insiders who raked in huge windfall profits from questionable food import contracts while millions in the South American nation starved. He was charged in Miami in 2019 with money laundering in connection with an alleged bribery scheme that raised more than $350 million from a low-income housing project for the Venezuelan government.

Maduro’s officials consider Saab a “kidnapping” victim and have attempted to rally popular support in Venezuela to demand his release. At the time of his arrest, he was on a humanitarian mission in Iran to negotiate the purchase of food, which has become more difficult to import as US sanctions severed Venezuela’s ties with the western financial system and exacerbated an economic collapse caused by years of hyperinflation, Power outages and widespread bottlenecks.


Maduro led supporters to chants of “Free Alex Saab” at a May Day commemoration rally in Caracas on Sunday.

But it’s not clear that Saab has remained loyal to the government that made him rich.

Recently unsealed court filings show that in the years leading up to his arrest, Saab had been an “active law enforcement source,” helping agents from the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Federal Bureau of Investigation investigate allegations of bribing top Venezuelan officials. As part of this collaboration, he also agreed to hand over profits from the dirty deals.

At an April 2019 meeting with US prosecutors in Europe, both sides discussed a surrender by Saab on May 30 this year, according to a summary of events contained in court filings. But the deadline passed and Saab never showed up, having cut all communications with US officials, according to court documents. A few weeks later he was charged.



Follow Goodman on Twitter: @APJoshGoodman

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Joel McCord

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