A Colombian businessman detained in Cape Verde in June was on a mission to Iran as a special envoy of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro to negotiate fuel and humanitarian supplies at the time of his arrest, his lawyers told Reuters.
Authorities in Cape Verde detained Alex Saab when his private jet stopped to refuel just after 8 p.m. on June 12, acting on an international arrest warrant for money laundering charges filed last year in the United States.
US prosecutors accuse Saab of bribing Venezuelan officials to take advantage of the state-controlled exchange rate and transferring $350 million in illegally obtained funds to overseas accounts.
Saab, who remains in a Cape Verde jail as he fights extradition to the United States, has denied the charges. His lawyers have called the US charges “politically motivated.”
The Madrid-based law firm representing Saab in Cape Verde exclusively provided Reuters with details of his Iran visits and relationship with the Maduro government, along with an account of his arrest.
“Special Envoy Saab is the key figure for the US in their plan to overthrow Nicolas Maduro and keep suffocating the Venezuelan people,” said a statement from Saab’s defense team, led by former Spanish judge Baltasar Garzon.
Saab’s lawyers said he made an earlier visit to Iran in April, when he persuaded Iranian officials to send oil tankers loaded with gasoline along with planes carrying refinery materials, to Venezuela to ease a fuel shortage crisis.
He also secured medical supplies and food to help Venezuela prepare for the coronavirus pandemic, which threatened to overrun the country’s decrepit health system, the lawyers said.
Asked about US officials’ comments that Caracas paid Tehran in gold for the shipments, Saab’s lawyers said the items were “paid for along standard international terms of trade using Venezuela’s own resources.”
Washington has imposed tough sanctions on trade in Venezuelan oil and gold in recent years in an effort to remove Maduro, whose 2018 reelection was widely considered a sham. The United States has also put sanctions on Iran.
Venezuela’s government, which said after Saab’s arrest that he was acting as its “agent” to secure humanitarian supplies for the coronavirus pandemic, did not respond to requests for comment.
Saab’s legal team is appealing a decision by a Cape Verde court to extradite him, arguing that he has diplomatic immunity and would not face a fair trial in the United States due to “illegal evidence.”
In a letter Saab wrote to Cape Verde’s prime minister earlier in August, he said Venezuela would offer his government “more opportunities” if authorities there released him. “I can help Cape Verde more than the United States will do in 100 years,” Saab wrote in the letter, seen by Reuters.
Saab’s arrest was a dramatic turn for the man who had risen from a textile company owner in Colombia to become a powerful intermediary for the Venezuelan government, considered a dictatorship by most Western nations.