Cape Verde’s supreme court ruled on Wednesday that Alex Saab, a Colombian businessman regarded as the chief dealmaker for Nicolás Maduro’s Venezuelan government, can be extradited to the US.
Saab’s lawyers said they would appeal to the islands’ constitutional court — their client’s final hope of avoiding being sent to the US.
Saab has been at the centre of a tug of war between Washington and Caracas since last June, when he was arrested in Cape Verde as his private jet stopped to refuel while on a mission for the Maduro government.
Caracas described Saab as a special envoy with diplomatic immunity, saying he was on a humanitarian mission to secure food and medical supplies. Washington said he was flying to Iran, probably to secure supplies of petrol to Venezuela in defiance of US sanctions.
The US is keen to get its hands on Saab as it regards him as a linchpin of the Maduro regime. US officials claim he helped Caracas export gold from illegally-owned mines in Venezuela to Turkey and the United Arab Emirates while channelling proceeds from his deals through a web of shell companies in Panama, Hong Kong and elsewhere.
The Venezuelan government is desperate to ensure he does not get sent to the US, where he could provide information on the workings of the Maduro government. Maduro is also under indictment in the US.
According to one intelligence analysis recently seen by the Financial Times, Caracas has used scores of false Twitter accounts in a bid to sway public opinion and pressure the Cape Verdean authorities into sending Saab to Venezuela.
Cape Verde’s decision comes in defiance of an order earlier this week from a court of the Economic Community of West African States, which said his arrest was unlawful and he should be freed.
Saab’s links to Venezuela date back years.
In 2011 he signed a joint venture contract as head of a Colombian company to build prefabricated houses in Venezuela. The US Department of Justice alleges that Saab and his company never fulfilled the contract.
“[They] transferred approximately $350m out of Venezuela, through the United States, to overseas accounts they owned or controlled,” the DoJ said in 2019 when Saab was indicted.
The US Treasury has also imposed sanctions on Saab, accusing him of laundering the profits from a Venezuelan government scheme to import food “through a sophisticated network of shell companies, business partners and family members”.