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MIAMI, Oct. 18 (Reuters) – A U.S. judge on Monday set a date for the arraignment of Alex Saab, a businessman accused of money laundering on behalf of the Venezuelan government, in a case between the United States to the socialist government of the Venezuelan president. Nicolas Maduro.
In 2019, U.S. prosecutors indicted Saab as part of a Venezuelan state-controlled exchange rate corruption program. They accused Saab and an ally of embezzling around $ 350 million from Venezuela to overseas accounts via the United States.
Washington also imposed sanctions on Saab for being accused of orchestrating a scheme that allowed him and Maduro to profit from a state-run food distribution program.
Saab’s lawyers called the US accusations “politically motivated.”
Saab, a 49-year-old Colombian national, was arrested in June 2020 when his plane stopped to refuel in Cape Verde. Courts across the country have approved his extradition after a long legal battle.
Saab appeared in a first hearing dressed in an orange jumpsuit and blue face mask via video conference before U.S. investigating magistrate John J. O’Sullivan in Miami on Monday.
Saab attorney Henry Bell requested that the arraignment be set in two weeks, citing the need to notify his client as well as a pending appeal that Saab was wrongly arrested because he was benefiting from the ‘diplomatic immunity.
Over the weekend in Caracas, Saab’s wife Camilla told a small government-led protest that her husband would fight the charges against him.
“My husband Alex Saab is never, ever going to crack,” she said tearfully, in a video posted online.
Following Saab’s extradition, Venezuela said on Saturday it would suspend talks with the opposition, citing its “deepest protest” against Saab’s treatment. In a televised speech Monday, Maduro said he was “outraged” by Saab’s extradition and would assess what to do with the talks “later.”
Venezuela has also revoked the house arrest of six former executives of refiner Citgo, a US subsidiary of state-owned oil company PDVSA, two sources and a family member told Reuters. The former cadres were taken to one of the intelligence police headquarters, two sources said.
The US government has repeatedly called for the release of the group, made up of five naturalized US citizens and one permanent resident.
Tensions have grown between Washington and Caracas, long-standing ideological enemies, after former President Donald Trump created a massive sanctions program in 2019 designed to force Maduro out of power in the midst of an economic downturn.
The Venezuelan government has accused the United States of kidnapping Saab, which it describes as a diplomatic envoy en route to Iran to negotiate supplies of fuel and food that were cut short by US sanctions. The opposition claims Saab was one of the main beneficiaries of the country’s state controls and hopes it will cooperate with US authorities.
“Many doubted that this day would come, because those who looted Venezuela present themselves as untouchable,” tweeted Carlos Vecchio, the envoy to the United States of Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido. “But the day always comes.”
A 2016 Reuters investigation found that Saab was also the head of a small Colombian trucking company that unexpectedly beat global industry leaders to land a multibillion dollar project in the belt. ‘Orinoco in Venezuela, the largest reserve of crude oil in the world. The deal was ultimately suspended after outcry from foreign oil companies.
Reporting by Brian Ellsworth in Miami and Alexandra Ulmer in San Francisco. Additional reporting by Vivian Sequera in Caracas. Editing by Noeleen Walder, Alistair Bell, Rosalba O’Brien and Lincoln Feast.