Alex Saab pleaded not guilty to a money-laundering accusation before a judge in Florida.


Alex Saab pleaded not guilty to a money-laundering accusation before a judge in Florida.

Nicolás Maduro's frontman was silent during the hearing. Instead, his lawyer reiterated the defense strategy assuring that his client is a Venezuelan diplomat and not guilty.

Colombian businessman Alex Saab, accused of having laundered hundreds of millions of dollars from corrupt businesses with the Venezuelan government of Nicolás Maduro, pleaded not guilty on Monday in a court case that has further strained relations between the United States and the South American nation.

Alex Saab did not speak, but his lawyer Neil Schuster told the court that he represented the "diplomat of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela" and pleaded not guilty.

The U.S. prosecutor's office has accused Saab of embezzling more than 350 million after bribing Venezuelan authorities and providing forged documents to obtain affordable housing contracts.

As part of its extradition treaty with Cape Verde, Washington dropped seven of the eight charges it initially faced, leaving only a money-laundering conspiracy. If convicted, he could face up to 20 years in prison.

Saab's extradition from Cape Verde still strained the United States and Venezuela's atmosphere and interrupted the dialogue between the Maduro government and the Venezuelan opposition.

The hearing was the first of its kind in the case of Judge Robert Scola, who rejected Saab's request to limit the presence of the public and the press. In the first hearing, which was virtual by zoom, more than 300 people were connected. However, Colombia's defense alleges that many later violated the law by posting pictures and videos on social networks. For this reason, the accused requested that the public attends only by telephone, which was rejected by the judge, who ordered a face-to-face hearing.

Courts cannot be accessed by telephone or electronic devices, except for lawyers and competent persons. Due to the corona virus epidemic, the majority of hearings are held in practice.

Saab, 49, faces a sentence of about 20 years if he is found guilty of the only charge in the Miami (Florida) court, a sentence that can be reduced if he reaches an agreement with the Prosecutor's Office.

The Chavista regime alleges that Saab, whom the United States considers an alleged front man for Maduro, was diplomats on a humanitarian mission en route to Iran when his plane stopped to refuel in Cape Verde.

But another case court documents show that, despite being portrayed as Maduro's loyalist, he could have secretly betrayed the Venezuelan government for years before the US indictment in 2019. He used to meet the authorities.

Saab has said it has nothing to do with cooperating with the United States, as defendants often do for a lenient sentence.

The businessman is also involved in another court case related to bribes to obtain food and medicine supply contracts from the Maduro government. At least part of that food came from Mexico and was later sent to Venezuela with a premium.