U.S. judge dismisses most money laundering charges against Maduro ally Saab

Nov 1 (Reuters) - A U.S. judge in Florida on Monday dismissed money laundering counts against Alex Saab, an ally of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, but he remains accused of one count of conspiracy to launder money, a court filing showed.

The order was issued by U.S. District Judge Robert Scola. The conspiracy charge that remains carries a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison.

Prosecutors say Saab, a Colombia-born businessman and top dealmaker for Maduro's socialist government, siphoned around $350 million out of Venezuela via the United States as part of a bribery scheme linked to Venezuela's state-controlled exchange rate.

One of Saab's lawyers, Henry Bell, told Reuters last week that his client would plead not guilty at an arraignment that had been originally scheduled for Monday but was postponed to Nov. 15. Bell declined to comment on Monday's decision.

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. The case has strained already frayed relations between Washington and Caracas.

Saab was extradited last month to the United States from Cape Verde, where he was detained in the summer of 2020 on a U.S. warrant.

In a Monday filing, U.S. prosecutors requested that seven of the initial eight charges contained in a July 2019 indictment be dropped to comply with assurances that officials made to the government of Cape Verde in seeking Saab's extradition.

Prosecutors said officials promised Cape Verde that Saab would only be charged on a single count to comply with the archipelago nation's laws regarding the maximum term of imprisonment.

Prosecutors did not immediately respond to requests for comment on Monday.

Three former federal prosecutors told Reuters they did not think the dismissals were major complications to the U.S. case, although one said it was a setback.

"This filing shows that the U.S. has now lost some sentencing leverage," said Mark Bini, partner with Reed Smith.

But Benton Curtis, a partner at McDermott Will & Emery, said that a lower maximum sentence was unlikely to affect Saab's likelihood of collaborating.

"Twenty years is still twenty years – that's a potentially significant period of incarceration. Once you reach certain (high) levels of potential incarceration, cooperation becomes less and less attractive to defendants," Curtis said.

Venezuela's opposition has said it hopes Saab will tell U.S. law enforcement agencies what he knows about any criminal activity by top Venezuelan officials, as well as the government's schemes for evading U.S. sanctions, which are aimed at ousting Maduro. read more

Washington has called Maduro a corrupt dictator and blamed him for the once-wealthy OPEC nation's economic collapse.

Following Saab's arrest, Venezuela's government said Saab had been granted Venezuelan citizenship and had been named a diplomat to negotiate shipments of fuel and humanitarian aid from Iran.

In response to the extradition, Maduro's government last month suspended nascent negotiations with the opposition.

The U.S.-backed opposition, which has called on Maduro to resume the talks, has said Saab became wealthy as a result of the deals he made with the government and did nothing to relieve the suffering of Venezuela's citizens.

Reporting by Alexandra Ulmer in San Fancisco and Luc Cohen in New York, additional reporting by Jonathan Stempel; Editing by Rosalba O'Brien and Noeleen Walder

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

Thomson Reuters

U.S. National Affairs Correspondent who spent four years in Venezuela covering President Maduro's administration and the humanitarian crisis and has also reported from Chile, Argentina and India. She was Reuters’ Reporter of the Year in 2015 and a leading member of a team that won an Overseas Press Club award for best coverage of Latin America in 2018.

Thomson Reuters

Reports on the New York federal courts. Previously worked as a correspondent in Venezuela and Argentina.