MIAMI -- For two years, Venezuela's socialist government has fought to extricate from the U.S. criminal justice system an insider businessman it claims was on an ultra-secret mission to ally Iran when he was arrested on a U.S. warrant during a routine fuel stop in Africa.
But the campaign to win the release of Alex Saab Moran suffered a blow Monday when U.S. prosecutors introduced documents casting doubt on defense evidence underlying his claim of diplomatic immunity from prosecution.
The prosecutors' reply to Saab's motion to dismiss a criminal indictment out of Miami for money laundering raises questions about the time and manner in which Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro purportedly appointed Saab as a special government envoy.
They include a copy of Saab's purported diplomatic passport with a picture and signature matching another, non-diplomatic passport issued nearly two years later — indicating a possible “forgery,” the prosecutors say.
Prosecutors also obtained from the U.S. Library of Congress a printed copy of the Venezuelan Official Gazette from April 26, 2018, that contradicts an electronic version of the same special edition — No. 6,373 — produced by defense attorneys supposedly showing Saab had been appointed special envoy by presidential decree.
“This fact calls into significant question whether the Maduro regime actually appointed Saab Moran as its special envoy, and instead suggests that this was a fabricated story,” prosecutors Kurt Lunkenheimer of Miami and Alex Kramer of Washington argue in their response.
An attorney for Saab declined to comment.
Saab's arrest in the summer of 2020 during a fuel stop in Cape Verde was touted at the time by Washington as a major achievement in its efforts to unseat Maduro. The Trump administration portrayed the Colombian-born businessman as a bag man for Maduro who profiteered from state contracts at a time of widespread hunger in the South American country.
In Venezuela, the previously unknown Saab has shot up in status over the case. Government-sponsored rallies, books and documentaries portray him as a “kidnapping” victim of the U.S. “empire” whose only crime was helping the oil-rich nation circumvent what it considers illegal U.S. sanctions.
The tug of war has been further complicated by evidence that Saab prior to his arrest was secretly signed up as an informant by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and had been providing it with information about corruption in Maduro’s inner circle.
Prosecutors in their latest filing claim Saab met with U.S. law enforcement officials six times between 2016 and 2019, along the way forfeiting $12.5 million in profits from contracts he allegedly admitted obtaining through bribes. During those meetings, Saab never claimed he was a Venezuelan diplomat, the filing says.
Prosecutors contend Maduro's government also did not refer to any purported diplomatic status when it initially protested Saab's arrest. The first three letters by then Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza to authorities in Cape Verde refer to Saab as an “agent” or “representative” of the Maduro government and only mention the non-diplomatic passport he was carrying with him at the time of his arrest.
The existence of a supposed diplomatic passport was only raised months later. And the diplomatic passport carries the exact same picture and signature of the non-diplomatic passport that appears to have been issued nearly two years later, prosecutors say.
“If Saab Moran was in fact a ‘special envoy’ of the Maduro regime, Arreaza and others in the Maduro regime would have immediately referred to him with that title upon his detention. They would have referred to his diplomatic passport as opposed to a general Venezuelan passport number. Yet none of these letters did,” the U.S. filing says.
Additionally, prosecutors point to inconsistencies in the Venezuelan Official Gazette where the presidential decree naming Saab as special envoy was supposedly recorded. While the appointment appeared in the electronic copy provided by Saab's lawyers, it is nowhere to be found in a printed copy of the same edition held at the Library of Congress. Nor does Saab's name appear in a version posted on the Venezuelan Supreme Court's website.
Still, key to Saab's defense is the fact that upon his arrest he was carrying letters from Maduro and other officials supposedly accrediting him to the Islamic republic as well as official documents showing he had been authorized to negotiate part of Venezuela's gold reserves in exchange for badly needed fuel.
The defense has also pointed to internal State Department emails and a book by former U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper to show that the Trump administration was aware of Saab's sensitive dealings on behalf of the Maduro government. His lawyers equate that to tacit recognition of his diplomatic status.
The back and forth comes ahead of a December hearing in which Judge Robert Scola will weigh evidence regarding Saab's diplomatic status.
Saab, 50, was charged in 2019 with eight counts of money laundering tied to a bribery scheme that allegedly siphoned off $350 million in state contracts to build affordable housing for Venezuela’s government.
While initially held up as a trophy by the Trump administration, the criminal case has become a major obstacle in efforts by the Biden administration to improve relations with Caracas at a time the West is looking to tap new oil supplies to make up for a loss of exports from Russia following sanctions over its invasion of Ukraine.
Joshua Goodman on Twitter: @APJoshGoodman