Ally of Venezuela's Maduro appears in court on graft charges

Alex Saab’s legs shook nervously while seated as he waited, handcuffed and in an orange jumpsuit, for the start of the hearing, which took place via Zoom with more than 350 journalists, gawking opponents of Maduro and members of Saab’s family in attendance.

Saab’s extradition to the U.S. from Cape Verde, where he was arrested 16 months ago, has already ricocheted far and wide.

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Only hours after Saab was placed on a Department of Justice aircraft on Saturday, Maduro’s government suspended negotiations with Venezuela’s U.S.-backed opposition. It also threw back into jail six American oil executives it accuses of corruption. They had been under house arrest in another politically charged case marked by allegations of wrongful detention.

The Maduro government has labelled Saab a diplomatic envoy and has spared no effort to free the Colombian-born businessman, who was arrested on a U.S. warrant in the African archipelago while making a fuel stop en route to Iran.

On Monday, it was joined by ally Russia, whose ambassador in Caracas tweeted his “most energetic and categorical protest against the kidnapping” of Saab.

Saab, 49, raised his bushy eyebrows but was largely silent as magistrate Judge John O’Sullivan, through an interpreter, informed him that he was being charged with eight counts of money laundering. The judge set another hearing in two weeks where Saab will have the opportunity to enter a plea.

Saab, was indicted in 2019 on money-laundering charges for allegedly bribing Venezuelan officials and falsifying import documents to pocket more than $ 350 million from a low-income housing project. On the same day as his indictment, he was sanctioned by the Trump administration for allegedly utilizing a network of shell companies spanning the globe — Turkey, Hong Kong, Mexico and the United Arab Emirates — to hide windfall profits from overvalued food contracts.

But Saab’s connections extend much deeper.

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Among those the U.S. claims he paid to win government contracts are Maduro’s stepsons. Commonly known in Venezuela as “Los Chamos,” slang for “the kids,” the three adult children of first lady Cilia Flores from a previous relationship have themselves been under investigation by prosecutors in Miami for several years, two people familiar with the U.S. investigation told The Associated Press.

Michael Penfold, a Venezuelan political analyst, said that Saab’s extradition is likely to freeze all attempts to bridge deep distrust between the Maduro government and its opponents. The two sides have been meeting since August in a bid to jointly address the country’s ongoing humanitarian crisis, which has led more than 5 million people to flee the country in recent years, and pave the way for a democratic opening starting with next month’s regional elections.

FILE PHOTO: A woman walks by a mural in support of the liberation of businessman Alex Saab, who was detained in Cape Verde on charges of laundering money for the government of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, in Caracas, Venezuela September 9, 2021. REUTERS/Leonardo Fernandez Viloria/File Photo

FILE PHOTO: A woman walks by a mural in support of the liberation of businessman Alex Saab, who was detained in Cape Verde on charges of laundering money for the government of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, in Caracas, Venezuela September 9, 2021. REUTERS/Leonardo Fernandez Viloria/File Photo

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