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Friday June 18th, 2021 3:03PM

African court orders release of ally of Maduro wanted by US

By The Associated Press

MIAMI (AP) — A regional court in West Africa has ordered the immediate release of a Venezuelan businessman close to President Nicolas Maduro, finding that his arrest in Cape Verde on U.S. money laundering charges was unlawful.

In its ruling Monday, a court belonging to the Economic Community of West African States, or ECOWAS, also instructed Cape Verde to cease all extradition proceedings against Alex Saab and compensate him $200,000 for damages

It’s not clear what, if any, impact the ruling by the three-judge panel will have on the extradition proceedings against Saab. Cape Verde, which arrested the Colombian-born businessman in June when his jet made a refueling stop on a flight to Iran, had previously repudiated the Nigeria-based court’s jurisdiction. And an appeals court in the island nation has already greenlighted his extradition, although the country's highest court has yet to sign off.

But it comes as Saab’s U.S. attorneys were in a Miami federal court Monday arguing 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.

The ECOWAS court in its ruling largely rejected Saab's claims that he enjoyed immunity from prosecution as a special envoy of Maduro's government — the central argument of his U.S. attorney. 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 in secret his mission shuttling between two countries heavily sanctioned by the U.S.

Instead, it faulted 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.

Saab’s New York-based lawyer, David Rivkin of Baker & Hostetler, argued in federal court on Monday that the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations affords his client diplomatic immunity even while in transit.

“The government’s position basically amounts to a claim that any diplomat in the world isn’t entitled to immunity unless the State Department accepts his diplomatic status,” said Rivkin.

But federal prosecutors argued that the Vienna Convention only regulates permanent diplomatic missions, not temporary assignments like Saab’s meetings in Iran. They also note that the alleged misconduct by Saab took place well before Venezuela granted him diplomatic status in 2018, first as special envoy for humanitarian aid and last year, following his arrest, as a representative to the Ethiopia-based African Union.

“Any diplomatic status he might have in Iran, the African Union or anywhere else would not protect him from being held responsible for his conduct in the United States,” said Justice Department attorney Alex Kramer.

Rivkin strongly rejected the claim, arguing that numerous letters between Maduro and Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, were sufficient evidence that he was on official government business.

“The whole point of diplomatic immunity is you have it while you have it,” he said.

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 have 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.

Follow Goodman on Twitter: @APJoshGoodman

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