Alex Saab, a Colombian businessman of Lebanese descent, known for his multimillion-dollar deals with the Venezuelan government, was extradited to the US on Saturday.
The 49-year-old diplomat, the son of a Lebanese immigrant who had settled in the city of Barranquilla, Colombia, has been under arrest since June 2020 for allegedly corrupt deals for Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro.
He was detained in Cabo Verde when his plane landed for refuelling.
Mr Saab, long considered a frontman for Mr Maduro, was reportedly on his way to Iran to negotiate obtaining various supplies for the Venezuelan regime. The Colombian government froze Mr Saab’s assets and issued a warrant for his arrest in 2018.
On Saturday, Cabo Verde's Constitutional Court approved Mr Saab’s extradition to the US where he is facing trial on corruption and money-laundering charges.
The second of four brothers, Mr Saab found success in Columbia’s textile industry before expanding his activities to Venezuela. There, he won government contracts to provide supplies for prefabricated houses and the state’s food programme.
He is set to make his first court appearance on Monday for exploiting food aid destined for Venezuela and laundering money for Mr Maduro through the food programme by taking advantage of the government-controlled exchange rate. His lawyers have called the US charges "politically motivated".
Last year, Mr Saab, in partnership with Venezuela's Oil Minister Tareck El Aissami, who is also of Lebanese descent, reportedly helped to negotiate a deal to purchase Iranian oil in exchange for gold – in breach of US sanctions.
His extradition prompted Venezuela to suspend negotiations with the opposition and to revoke the house arrest of six former executives of refiner Citgo, a US subsidiary of state oil company PDVSA. The six including five US citizens and a permanent resident, were released from jail and put under house arrest in April. The US government has repeatedly demanded their release.
Sanctions for Lebanese businessmen
Mr Saab is not the first businessman of Lebanese descent to be pursued by the US.
Several Lebanese businessmen affiliated with Iran-backed Hezbollah have been subjected to sanctions for their involvement in drug and weapons trafficking across Latin America and for providing support to Mr Maduro’s regime.
In 2012, the US Department of the Treasury flagged four people and three entities involved in laundering the proceeds of narcotics for Ayman Joumaa, whom he US accuses of running a network that has reach throughout the Americas and the Middle East with links to Hezbollah. Those designated included Abbas Hussein Harb, Ibrahim Chibli and Ali Mohamad Saleh.
The US Treasury said at the time that Mr Harb’s businesses in Colombia and Venezuela were laundering money for the Joumaa network through the Lebanese financial sector.