October 26, 2018 / 5:29 PM / 20 days ago

Spain's High Court agrees to extradite Chavez aide to Venezuela

MADRID/CARACAS (Reuters) - Spain’s High Court agreed on Friday to extradite a Venezuelan woman who was part of the late socialist leader Hugo Chavez’s inner circle to her home country, where she is suspected of money laundering and illicit enrichment.

FILE PHOTO: Late Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez talks to the media after a meeting with Brazil's Foreign Minister Antonio Patriota at the Miraflores Palace in Caracas November 1, 2012. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins/File Photo

According to Venezuelan media, Claudia Diaz was Chavez’s nurse when he was being treated for cancer, which ultimately led to his death in 2013, while her husband served as one of his aides de camp.

From 2011 until 2013, Diaz also served as an executive of government fund Fonden - an obscure state-run investment fund which received more than $100 billion in state revenue but produced little if any documentation as to how the funds were spent.

The court said in a statement that Diaz is suspected of using the Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca to create companies through which she acquired illicit assets in Venezuela and abroad, in a case linked to the “Panama Papers.”

Both Diaz and her husband’s names surfaced in the Panama Papers - millions of documents from Mossack Fonseca that were published by the media in April 2016 and which show how the rich and powerful used offshore corporations to evade taxes.

When Diaz was detained in Spain in April, Venezuela’s Chief Prosecutor Tarek Saab wrote on Twitter that his office had requested her arrest due to her appearance in the Panama Papers.

In a written statement, Saab’s office said it opened an investigation into Diaz and her husband in April 2016 and that the two were wanted for money laundering and embezzlement.

Investigators raided their properties and determined their wealth was greater “than they could have acquired from their occupations as public officials,” according to Saab’s office.

According to the High Court statement, Diaz claims the case is politically motivated due to her opposition to Venezuela’s current government. The court dismissed this explanation, saying there was no indication the case was motivated by her political ideas.

The court’s decision, which may be appealed, must now be ratified by the Spanish government.

It is not clear whether Fonden funds were implicated in the alleged money laundering.

A 2012 Reuters investigation found that Fonden plowed hundreds of millions of dollars into state-run factories that were never completed and have never produced anything. [reut.rs/2SjxAkR]

Human rights groups and Venezuela’s opposition accuse President Nicolas Maduro of holding hundreds of critics of his administration in harsh conditions to stifle dissent. Maduro’s government denies it holds political prisoners.

Reporting by Paul Day; Additional reporting by Brian Ellsworth and Luc Cohen in Caracas; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky and Bill Trott

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