A U.S. court has affirmed the “fugitive status” of a controversial Venezuelan diplomat, Alex Saab, who is currently on house arrest in Cape Verde, preparatory to his planned extradition to face money laundering charges in America.
Weeks ago, the details of Mr Saab’s criminal case, which has been pending in the U.S. since July 2019, emerged from relative obscurity and took the centre stage of an international media sensation that was triggered by a BuzzFeed report.
The foreign media’s report exposed how some Nigerian social media influencers were paid to campaign for Mr Saab’s freedom through the promotion of hashtag ‘FreeAlexSaab’ which was often built around his then ongoing case at the ECOWAS Court in Abuja.
In reaction to the Buzzfeed report, Twitter, in April, suspended some accounts linked to the #FreeAlexSaab campaign.
Even though, the ECOWAS Court had in its judgment delivered on March 15, ordered Mr Saab’s release, the Cabo Verdean government refused to comply with the verdict, even as the archipelago country’s Supreme Court also promptly declared in a ruling that the government was not subject to the regional court’s jurisdiction.
The Southern District Court of Florida had first designated Mr Saab a fugitive on August 26, 2019 following his failure to appear to face the money laundering charges filed against him by U.S. authorities on July 25, 2019.
Mr Saab later submitted a motion urging the court to cancel the fugitive designation, saying he had the plan to argue in a future filing that his indictment should be dismissed because he is a diplomat of Venezuela entitled to immunity.
He also presented an alternative prayer for leave for “special appearance” to challenge both the fugitive status and the indictment, without physically appearing in the court.
In reinforcement of his case, he submitted to the court a copy of the March 15, 2021 judgment of the ECOWAS Court ordering his freedom and quashing the extradition proceedings initiated against him in Cape Verde.
‘He remains a fugitive’
But the judge, Robert Scola Jr., in a ruling delivered on March 18, dismissed Mr Saab’s motion, declaring that applicant would not be allowed to challenge his fugitive status and the validity of the charges pending against him without his physical presence in court.
“Saab Moran is precluded from attacking his fugitive status and indictment until he is physically present in this jurisdiction,” Mr Scola wrote in the judgment, a copy of which PREMIUM TIMES obtained on Thursday.
“Saab Moran is a fugitive,” Mr Scola declared in a reaffirmation of the court’s previous declaration.
“A party is a fugitive if he intentionally avoids arrest by fleeing, hiding within, or remaining absent from the jurisdiction,” the judge added.
Why Saab’s motion failed
The judge in dismissing Mr Saab’s motion evoked the “fugitive disentitlement doctrine”, which according to him, “limits access to courts by a fugitive who has fled a criminal conviction in a court in the United States.”
Citing case laws to back his decision, the judge explained that under the “fugitive disentitlement doctrine”, a fugitive that has demonstrated “such disrespect for the legal process… has no right to call upon the court to adjudicate his claim.”
In agreement with the U.S. government’s arguments against Mr Saab’s motion, the judge ruled that the defendant’s failure to present himself in the U.S. for almost two years and decline authorities’ request to do so constituted a “constructive flight”.
“Saab Moran has been aware of the charges against him for almost two years and has had ample opportunity to present himself to United States authorities. He has declined the government’s request to do so. This is sufficient to constitute constructive flight,” Mr Scola added.
The judge said Mr Saab’s argument that the fugitive disentitlement doctrine was not applicable to him because he was not based in the U.S., was untenable.
Mr Scola said “he had constructively fled because he had known about the charges against him for years and had ample opportunities to enter the jurisdiction and face the inducement and chosen against it).”
“Accordingly, the court finds that the fugitive disentitlement doctrine applies in this case and prevents Saab Moran from challenging his fugitive status or future challenges to his indictment,” the judge ruled.
‘No special appearance for Saab’
Mr Saab’s alternative prayer for “special appearance” to enable him to challenge his fugitive status and validity of the charges while staying away from the court was also rejected.
The judge held that Mr Saab failed to establish the “extraordinary circumstances” and “political undertone” to warrant granting him special appearance in court.
Commenting on Mr Saab’s argument that he was immune from the charges against him and that he had been ordered by the Government of Venezuela to avoid appearance in the U.S. court, Mr Scola said “the court is unconvinced that these facts rise to the political undertones” enumerated in the case law cited by the detainee.
“Saab Moran’s unwillingness to submit to the court’s authority, coupled with the inequity of allowing Saab Moran to challenge the indictment without having to submit to this Court’s jurisdiction and the prejudice against the Government, does not justify a special appearance in this case.”
Saab’s appeals against ruling
Mr Saab had, from his house arrest in Cape Verde, immediately appealed against the U.S. court’s ruling, while continuing waging legal battles against his extradition and for the archipelago country’s government to respect the judgment of the ECOWAS Court ordering his freedom.
He filed his notice of appeal against the U.S. district court’s judgment on April 1.
“Notice is hereby given that ALEX NAIN SAAB MORAN, defendant in the above named case, hereby appeals to the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit from the Order Denying Motion to Vacate Order Conferring Fugitive Status and for Leave for Special Appearance to Challenge Indictment entered in this action on March 18, 2021,” the notice of appeal read in part.
Arrest, court cases
A dual citizen of Colombia and Venezuela, Mr Saab was on June 12, 2020, arrested by Cabo Verdean authorities and Interpol on U.S. government’s request.
Mr Saab said he was en route to a special mission in Iran as a Venezuelan diplomat when he was arrested in Cape Verde.
His supporters believe his travail is a fallout out of the diplomatic and political row between the U.S. and Venezuelan governments.
While entangled in the legal battle to stop his trial in the U.S., Mr Saab simultaneously launched separate suits in Cape Verde and the ECOWAS Court in Abuja, Nigeria, to stop his extradition to America.
A Cape Verdean court had already ordered his extradition to the U.S., but Mr Saab appealed against the decision.
On March 15, the ECOWAS Court ruled in his favour by ordering his release, after declaring his arrest and detention as illegal and violation of his fundamental rights.
The regional court also quashed the ongoing extradition proceedings initiated against him in Cape Verde.
But days after the verdict, the Cabo Verdean Supreme Court, in a ruling affirming the order for his extradition to the U.S., said its country’s government was not bound by the regional court’s decision.
Mr Saab has further appealed against the judgment in the country’s superior Constitutional Court.
He, therefore, remains on house arrest in Cape Verde, pending the conclusion of the proceedings.
Inside $350 million money case against Saab
The U.S. government on July 25, 2019, filed one count of conspiring to launder money and seven counts of money laundering against Mr Saab and Alvaro Pulido Vargas, also known as ‘German Enrique Rubio Salas’
The authorities alleged in the charges seen by PREMIUM TIMES that Mr Saab and his co-defendant, Mr Vargas entered into a contract with the Government of Venezuela to build low-income housing.
Mr Saab and other co-conspirators allegedly paid bribes to Venezuelan government officials to approve false invoices for services not performed and to approve the purchase of goods never provided.
It was alleged that as a result of these bribes, Mr Saab and his co-defendant received payment on the fraudulent invoices.
Investigators alleged that Mr Saab and his co-conspirators laundered the proceeds of their scheme through wire transfers totalling $350,041,500.
Mr Saab and Mr Vargas were accused of distributing the funds using bank accounts in the Southern District of Florida.
Support PREMIUM TIMES' journalism of integrity and credibility
Good journalism costs a lot of money. Yet only good journalism can ensure the possibility of a good society, an accountable democracy, and a transparent government.
For continued free access to the best investigative journalism in the country we ask you to consider making a modest support to this noble endeavour.
By contributing to PREMIUM TIMES, you are helping to sustain a journalism of relevance and ensuring it remains free and available to all.
TEXT AD: To advertise here . Call Willie +2347088095401...