Venezuela wants jailed envoy to take part in talks with opposition

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CARACAS, Sept 14 (Reuters) - The Venezuelan government wants a top envoy who has been charged with money laundering and is close to President Nicolas Maduro to take part in its political dialogue with the opposition, a move that threatens to stir tensions.

Venezuela National Assembly President Jorge Rodriguez said on Tuesday that the government would name Alex Saab, who is currently jailed in Cape Verde on U.S. money-laundering charges, as a member of its delegation at the dialogue process taking place in Mexico.

Saab, a Colombian businessman, was arrested last year in the African archipelago nation on an international arrest warrant related to the 2019 U.S. charges. Venezuela said shortly after his arrest that it had conferred Saab diplomatic status.

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A Cape Verde court ruling last week paved the way for his extradition to the United States. Rodriguez did not specify how, if at all, Saab would be able to travel to Mexico for the talks.

Rodriguez is the lead delegate for Maduro's socialist government to the Norway-mediated talks with representatives of opposition leader Juan Guaido, aimed at resolving the South American country's longstanding political crisis.

In a statement on Tuesday evening, the opposition delegation said it would not be "distracted" from its negotiation agenda, and called on Norway to guarantee that the process' norms would be followed.

The opposition delegation called the government's request for Saab to join the process a "defense strategy" in the face of his possible extradition to the United States.

The opposition views Saab as a prime example of the business operators who profited off close relationships with Venezuelan officials as the once-prosperous OPEC nation's economy collapsed, plunging millions into poverty.

The United States - which labels Maduro a corrupt dictator who rigged his 2018 re-election - imposed sanctions on Saab in 2019, accusing him of bribing Maduro relatives to win overvalued government contracts.

The U.S. Attorney's Office for the Southern District of Florida also charged Saab with money laundering in connection with a separate alleged bribery scheme.

Saab's lawyers have called the U.S. charges "politically motivated" and said his arrest took place while he was en route to Iran to negotiate aid and fuel shipments to impoverished Venezuela. Venezuelan officials say Washington's pursuit of Saab is part of its "economic war" aimed at ousting Maduro.

"Saab has been kidnapped in an overseas jail for more than 400 days, violating all international norms," Rodriguez said in an appearance on Venezuelan state television.

Rodriguez said Saab would focus on talks related to social measures, one of the partial agreements by the two sides to work together reached at a prior round of talks earlier this month.

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Reporting by Caracas newsroom Writing by Luc Cohen Editing by Rosalba O'Brien and Leslie Adler

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