MIAMI: A court in Cape Verde ruled Tuesday that a businessman close to Venezuelan President Nicols Maduro arrested last year in the West African country can be extradited to the United States to face money-laundering charges.
The Constitutional Court unanimously rejected Alex Saabs appeal, which was filed after his extradition was approved by another Cape Verde court five months ago.
Saab was arrested in June 2020 when his private jet made a refueling stop on the small island chain, formerly a Portuguese colony, en route to Iran on what the Venezuelan government has described as a humanitarian mission.
The Constitutional Courts three judges were Saabs last hope of avoiding a U.S. trial. But it was not immediately clear whether he had any additional legal recourse or when he might be put on a plane to the United States.
U.S. officials believe Saab holds numerous secrets about how Maduro, the presidents family and his top aides allegedly siphoned off millions of dollars in government contracts amid widespread hunger in oil-rich Venezuela.
His defense team has argued, among other things, that Saab was a diplomatic envoy of the Venezuelan government and as such possesses immunity from prosecution while on his official mission.
The Constitutional Courts decision came as new talks have gotten underway in Mexico between Venezuelas government and the opposition. It’s unclear how Saab’s likely extradition would affect those talks, which are being sponsored by Norway, but Maduro’s government has made freeing the Colombian-born businessman a top priority.
The high-profile case, with diplomatic tensions between Maduros government and Washington as a backdrop, had also placed Cape Verde under an unwelcome international spotlight.
In March, a court belonging to the Economic Community of West African States, or ECOWAS, to which Cape Verde belongs, instructed Cape Verde to free Saab and pay him compensation.
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.
The previous U.S. Trump administration had made Saabs 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, Maduros government has vehemently objected to Saabs prosecution as a veiled attempt at regime change by the U.S. government.
Hatton reported from Lisbon, Portugal.
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