MIAMI (CBSMiami/CNN/AP) - A Columbian financier who works closely with embattled Venezuelan leader Nicolas Maduro made his first U.S. federal court appearance in Miami on Monday after being extradited from Cape Verde over the weekend.
Alex Saab's legs shook nervously while seated as he waited, handcuffed and in an orange jumpsuit, for the start of the hearing, which took place via Zoom with more than 350 journalists, gawking opponents of Maduro and members of Saab's family in attendance.
The U.S. claims Alex Saab was behind a corrupt network involving a government-subsidized food program called CLAP that allowed Maduro and his allies to steal hundreds of millions of dollars from the Venezuelan people while also using food as a form of social control.
Saab, 49, raised his bushy eyebrows but was largely silent as magistrate Judge John O'Sullivan, through an interpreter, informed him that he was being charged with eight counts of money laundering. The judge set another hearing in two weeks where Saab will have the opportunity to enter a plea.
Supporters rallied against his extradition in Caracas on Sunday.
Saab's attorney, Jose Manual Pinto Monteiro, called the extradition to the U.S. kidnapping.
"Alex Saab, special envoy and ambassador of Venezuela, was kidnapped by the United States and taken to the U.S. This procedure is illegal and shameful for Cape Verde. This procedure violates all the rules of international law," he said.
The Treasury Department also accused Saab of personally profiting from overvalued contracts.
Saab had been sanctioned by the US Treasury Department and had been sought by the Department of Justice Southern District of Florida over money laundering charges.
Due to his indictment in the US, an Interpol red notice was issued. In June 2020, Saab was detained while traveling from Venezuela to Iran when his jet stopped to refuel in Cape Verde, an African island nation.
Earlier this year, Saab said he feared he would be treated inhumanely if he were extradited to the US.
He was extradited on Saturday, and the DOJ said Saab's extradition was "conducted in full compliance with all relevant Cabo Verdean laws and court rulings."
"The U.S. Department of Justice expresses our gratitude to the Government of Cabo Verde for its assistance and perseverance with this complex case and admiration for the professionalism of Cabo Verde's judicial system," the DOJ statement said.
Hours after Saab's extradition, five US citizens and a permanent resident known as the "CITGO 6" who had been detained in Venezuela were picked up by the country's intelligence service -- apparently in retaliation for Saab's extradition.
The CITGO 6 consists of former executives of CITGO Petroleum Corporation -- José Ángel Pereira, Gustavo Cárdenas, Jorge Toledo, José Luis Zambrano, Tomeu Vadell and Alirio José Zambrano.
They were arrested in Caracas in 2017 on embezzlement charges and had been under house arrest since May. They have denied the charges.
The US State Department denounced the imprisonment of "six wrongfully detained Americans in Venezuela."
"These six Americans and their families have suffered long enough," the State Department said in a statement Sunday. "The United States continues to call for their immediate release and return to the United States."
(©2021 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. Cable News Network, Inc., a Time Warner Company, and the Associated Press contributed to this report.)
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