By Brian Ellsworth
MIAMI – A United States appeals court said on Monday that it has declined to rule on whether Alex Saab, an ally of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro awaiting trial for money laundering, should receive diplomatic immunity.
U.S. prosecutors say Saab, a Colombia-born businessman who was extradited last year from Cape Verde, siphoned around $350 million out of Venezuela via the United States as part of a scheme that involved bribing Venezuelan government officials.
Saab says he was acting as a diplomatic representative for the Maduro government when he was arrested. He had appealed to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, arguing that he should be immune from prosecution due to his diplomatic status.
“We remand the case to the district court to consider in the first instance whether Saab Moran is a foreign diplomat and immune from prosecution,” wrote judges of the 11th circuit.
The judges, quoting a prior legal decision, wrote that they were “poorly situated to decide [this mixed question of fact and law] in the first instance.”
That hands the decision on Saab’s diplomatic status to Judge Robert Scola of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida, where the money laundering charge was filed.
A U.S. court filing unsealed in February showed that Saab cooperated with U.S. authorities for nearly a year starting in 2018 by forfeiting funds and serving as a law enforcement source for the Drug Enforcement Administration.
Maduro’s allies have characterized Washington’s pursuit of Saab as part of an “economic war” on Venezuela being waged by the U.S. government. They say Saab had been granted Venezuelan citizenship and was negotiating aid and fuel shipments from Iran following U.S. sanctions meant to force Maduro from power.