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Extradition to U.S. halts Venezuela internal talks

by The Associated. Press | October 17, 2021 at 3:32 a.m.
FILE - In this Thursday, Sept 9, 2021, file photo, pedestrians walk near a poster asking for the freedom of Colombian businessman and Venezuelan special envoy Alex Saab, in Caracas, Venezuela. Saab, a top fugitive close to Venezuela's socialist government has been put on a plane to the U.S. to face money laundering charges, a senior U.S. official confirmed Saturday, Oct. 16, 2021. (AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos, File)

MIAMI -- Venezuela's government announced Saturday that it would halt negotiations with the country's opposition in retaliation for the extradition to the U.S. of a close ally of President Nicolas Maduro wanted on money laundering charges.

Jorge Rodriguez, who has been heading the government's delegation in talks that started in August, said his team wouldn't travel to Mexico City for the next scheduled round of talks with his U.S.-backed opponents, although he stopped short of saying the government was abandoning the talks altogether.

The announcement came hours after businessman Alex Saab was put on a U.S.-bound plane in Cape Verde after failing in a 16-month fight to prevent his extradition to face money laundering charges in Miami. Saab was arrested in the African archipelago while making a stop on the way to Iran for what Maduro's government later described as a diplomatic humanitarian mission.

Rodriguez, standing in front of a giant sign reading "Free Alex Saab," called his arrest an illegal "aggression" by the U.S., which has been pushing for years for Maduro's removal.

Saab's arrival in the U.S. is bound to complicate relations between Washington and Caracas. Maduro's government has vehemently objected to Saab's prosecution as a veiled attempt at regime change by Washington.

U.S. prosecutors say Saab amassed a fortune wheeling and dealing on behalf of the socialist government, which faces heavy U.S. sanctions.

American authorities have been targeting Saab for years, believing he holds numerous secrets about how Maduro, the president's family and his top aides siphoned off millions of dollars in government contracts for food and housing amid widespread hunger in oil-rich Venezuela.

However his defenders, including Maduro's government as well as allies Russia and Cuba, consider his arrest illegal and maintain that Saab was a diplomatic envoy of the Venezuelan government and as such possesses immunity from prosecution while on official business.

In a statement Saturday, Venezuela's government again denounced the "kidnapping" of Saab by the U.S. government "in complicity with authorities in Cape Verde."

The argument failed to persuade Cape Verde's Constitutional Court, which last month authorized his extradition after a year of wrangling by Saab's legal team, which includes former Spanish judge Baltasar Garzon and BakerHostetler, one of the U.S.' biggest firms.

Federal prosecutors indicted Saab in 2019 on money-laundering charges connected to an alleged bribery scheme that pocketed more than $350 million from a low-income housing project for the Venezuelan government.

Separately, Saab had been sanctioned by the previous Trump administration for reportedly utilizing a network of shell companies spanning the globe to hide huge profits from no-bid, overvalued food contracts obtained through bribes and kickbacks.

Some of Saab's contracts were obtained by paying bribes to the adult children of Venezuelan first lady Cilia Flores, the Trump administration alleged. The three men are also under investigation by prosecutors in Miami for reportedly forming part of a scheme to siphon $1.2 billion from Venezuela's state-owned oil company, two people familiar with the U.S. investigation said.

But while in private U.S. officials have long described Saab as a front man for Maduro, he is not identified as such in court filings.

The Biden administration has downplayed the importance of Saab's problems, saying he can defend himself in U.S. courts and that his case shouldn't affect ongoing negotiations sponsored by Norway aimed at overcoming Venezuela's long running economic crisis and political tug of war.

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