Venezuela on Sunday demanded the release of a government-connected businessman who was detained in Cape Verde on US corruption charges.
Caracas called the arrest of Alex Saab an illegal act of aggression by the Trump administration against the crisis-racked oil nation.
Mr Saab’s arrest on Friday while en route to Iran was a blow to President Nicolas Maduro’s government. US officials believe he holds many secrets about how the socialist leader, his family and top aides allegedly siphoned off millions of dollars in government contracts amid widespread hunger in the oil-rich nation.
It was unclear how US authorities, who had been targeting the Colombian businessman for years, finally caught up with him. A person familiar with the situation said the 48-year-old was detained in Cape Verde when his San Marino-registered jet made a refuelling stop on a flight to Tehran, where he was believed to be negotiating deals to exchange Venezuelan gold for Iranian petrol.
Flight tracking data shows the aircraft departed on Friday from Caracas. A jet belonging to Presidential Aviation, a US government contractor formerly owned by the Blackwater security firm, was standing ready for a chartered flight on Sunday from Cape Verde to Miami’s private Opa Locka airport.
Venezuela protested the arrest of Mr Saab, who it said was travelling on a Venezuelan passport and was on a “humanitarian mission” to buy food and medical supplies. It said an Interpol arrest notice for Saab wasn’t issued until a day after his detention, violating international norms and disregarding the diplomatic immunity he enjoys as an “agent of a sovereign government”.
As the Trump administration seeks to regain momentum in its faltering campaign to oust Mr Maduro and install opposition leader Juan Guaido as Venezuela’s president, it is increasingly going after top officials and business people connected to the embattled leader. In March, it indicted Mr Maduro and more than a dozen other individuals on narcoterrorist, corruption and other criminal charges.
Saab was indicted by the US justice department for money laundering last July.
Cape Verde does not have a criminal extradition agreement with the United States, and Mary Dominguez, Saab’s lawyer, confirmed his arrest, without giving further details.
The United States accuses Saab and his trading partner, Alvaro Boledo, of laundering and transferring $350 million outside Venezuela, either to the United States or via the United States to foreign accounts. If convicted, he faces up to 20 years in prison.
The 48-year-old was detained on an Interpol “red notice” stemming from the indictment.
Saab who is also reportedly a US citizens and acting as a sleeping agent for Hezbollah is also accused by the US government of serving as President Maduro’s front man in a large network of money laundering and corruption.
He is accused of making huge sums of money from overvalued contracts, as well as Venezuela’s systems of government-set exchange rate and centralised import and distribution of basic foods.
Venezuela has faced chronic shortages of food and medicine as a result of years of political and economic crisis.
“Saab engaged with Maduro insiders to run a wide-scale corruption network they callously used to exploit Venezuela’s starving population,” said Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said when the sanctions were announced.
“They use food as a form of social control, to reward political supporters and punish opponents, all the while pocketing hundreds of millions of dollars through a number of fraudulent schemes.”
Saab was also wanted for money laundering in his native Colombia, where he is regarded as a fugitive from justice.
Saab and his Italian wife, Camilla Fabri, are also under investigation in Italy for money laundering, according to the Italian press.
Washington has long accused the President Maduro of leading a corrupt regime in Venezuela – a charge he has repeatedly rejected.