U.S. Trying to Extradite Venezuelan Diplomat for ‘Crime’ of Importing Food: The Case of Alex Saab vs. the Empire

Bishop Felipe Teixeira (center), Pericles Tavares (right) and Sara Flounders (left) in front of a police station on the island of Sal in Cabo Verde, attempting to arrange a visit with detained Venezuelan diplomat Alex Saab / credit: International #FreeAlexSaab Solidarity Committee
Bishop Felipe Teixeira (center), Pericles Tavares (right) and Sara Flounders (left) in front of a police station on June 4 on the island of Sal in Cabo Verde, attempting to arrange a visit with detained Venezuelan envoy Alex Saab / credit: International #FreeAlexSaab Solidarity Committee

As the International #FreeAlexSaab Solidarity Committee reported June 6, a delegation is in Cabo Verde to meet Venezuelan envoy Alex Saab, who is imprisoned on U.S. orders. They aim to document the conditions of his confinement and demand his release.

Heading the humanitarian delegation is Cape Verdean religious leader Bishop Felipe Teixeira, Cape Verdean politician Pericles Tavares, and human rights activists Sara Flounders of International Action Center and Roger Harris of Task Force on the Americas.

In their first full day in Cabo Verde on June 4, the emergency human-rights delegation met with Saab’s lawyer and the Venezuelan ambassador, tried to meet with the local police commander, and saw first hand the prison-house where Saab is jailed. Heavily armed guards prevented a visit.

The solidarity committee is circulating a petition demanding Saab’s release and it is providing updates on Twitter.


Below is an edited version of Roger Harris’ May 26 article, which appeared in venezuelanalysis.com, after first being published in Dissident Voice.

Venezuela's CLAP food program (Gloria La Riva/Liberation News) and Alex Saab (right, U.S. Dept. of Treasury)
Venezuela’s CLAP food program (credit: Gloria La Riva/Liberation News) and Alex Saab (right, credit: U.S. Department of Treasury)

The case of Alex Saab raises dangerous precedents in terms of extraterritorial judicial abuse, violation of diplomatic status and even the use of torture to extract false confessions. This is according to Montréal-based international human-rights lawyer John Philpot. He spoke on May 19 at a webinar sponsored by the Alliance for Global Justice and other groups about this example of the long reach of the U.S. empire enforcing its deadly sanctions on some one-third of humanity.


United States Sanctions Venezuela for Being Sovereign

Activist Stansfield Smith of Chicago ALBA Solidarity commented that the Saab case is part of a larger U.S. effort to use “lawfare” to impose its illegal sanctions, which the United Nations condemns as “unilateral coercive measures.” The United States employs sanctions to discipline countries that attempt to develop independently of U.S. domination.

The United States is able to extend its imperial reach through its domination of the international financial system, which is U.S. dollar-denominated and mediated through the monetary exchange known as SWIFT. By controlling the international financial system, Smith explained, Washington can demand banks in foreign countries accept U.S. restrictions or face sanctions themselves.

Venezuela’s resistance to U.S. interference, starting with Hugo Chávez’s Bolivarian Revolution two decades ago, has been punished by the United States with mounting sanctions so extreme that they now amount to an asphyxiating blockade, causing severe shortages of food and medicine. Activist William Camacaro of the Alberto Lovera Bolivarian Circle attested to the impact on the people of Venezuela. This U.S. effort to achieve regime change is, in effect, collective punishment to coerce the Venezuelans to reject their elected government.

Even a report from the U.S. government readily admits “sanctions, particularly on the state oil company in 2019, likely contributed to the steeper decline of the Venezuelan economy.” This crippling blow to its oil industry has impacted Venezuela’s capability to generate electricity, conduct agriculture, and generate income from oil sales to fund social programs and import vital necessities, all of which have negatively impacted the lives of ordinary Venezuelans.

Once a leading oil exporter, Venezuela’s ability to import equipment components for its oil refineries and light oil to mix with its heavy crude has been cut off by the United States, devastating its productive capacity. The United States has even blocked international oil-for-food swaps by Venezuela.


United States Targets Mission to Import Fuel and Food

Alex Saab, Venezuelan special envoy and ambassador to the African Union, was on a mission flying from Caracas to Iran to procure food and gasoline for the Venezuelan CLAP food assistance program. Saab was detained on a refueling stop in the African nation of Cabo Verde and has been held in custody since June 12, 2020.

Saab’s “crime,” according to the U.S. government, which ordered the imprisonment, was money laundering. That is, Washington considers Saab’s international trade circumventing deadly U.S. sanctions to be money laundering.

After a 2-year investigation into Saab’s transactions with Swiss banks, the Swiss government concluded on March 25 no money laundering was involved. The real reason Saab is being persecuted is because he is serving his country’s interest rather than that of the United States. Saab was born in Colombia, but now holds Venezuelan citizenship.

The U.S. mandate for the arrest and extradition of Saab would be like Saudi Arabia demanding the arrest and extradition of a British citizen visiting Italy for wearing short-shorts. In essence, the United States does not have legal jurisdiction over a Venezuelan in Cabo Verde on his way to Iran.

The legal fig leaf for what amounts to a kidnapping was an INTERPOL “red notice,” which was not issued until a day after Saab’s arrest and was subsequently dropped. Saab has specified, “they tortured me and pressured me to sign voluntary extradition declarations and bear false witness against my government.”


Saab’s Distinguished African Defense Team

Saab’s attorney in Cabo Verde, Geraldo da Cruz Almeida, explained to the webinar the absurdity of the politically motivated legal case against his client. Saab has violated neither Cabo Verdean nor Venezuelan law. Moreover, Saab’s diplomatic status should have given him immunity from arrest.

The United States does not recognize Saab’s diplomatic status. But then again, U.S. President Joe Biden maintains the fiction that the self-appointed and Trump-anointed Juan Guaidó is president of Venezuela.

Femi Falana, former president of the West African Bar Association, spoke to the webinar from Nigeria. Attorney Falana represented Saab before the regional Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) Court. On March 15, the court ordered Saab’s release and cancellation of the extradition.

Under U.S. pressure, Cabo Verde continues to hold Saab. Attorney Falana has called on Biden to respect the rule of law and human rights in Africa. Activist Sara Flounders of the International Action Center pointed out 15 of the 39 countries under illegal U.S. sanctions are African.

Ranking 175th and 185th among the countries of the world in terms of geographic area and economic size, respectively, the Republic of Cabo Verde is vulnerable to U.S. strong-arm tactics. It is resource-poor and depends on tourism and remittances from abroad. Shortly after Saab’s arrest, the United States gifted $1.5 million to private-sector entities in Cabo Verde on top of some $284 million total in U.S. aid over the last 20 years.

The U.S. State Department describes Cabo Verde as “an important partner” where the “current administration has prioritized relations with the United States and Europe.” The U.S. Bureau for International Narcotics Law Enforcement funds and supports activities in Cabo Verde, while the Boston Police Department works with Cabo Verde police.

Cabo Verde, it should be noted, is important in the history of African liberation. Marxist Amílcar Cabral led the liberation movement of Guinea-Bissau and Cabo Verde Islands and was assassinated in 1973, only months before declaring its independence from Portugal.


Setting a Precedent

Meng Wanzhou, a Chinese national doing business in Canada, is under arrest for “bank fraud” and is fighting extradition to the United States. North Korean Mun Chol Myong has already been extradited to the United States from Malaysia on similar charges to those used against Saab, for doing business according to international law rather than abiding by illegal U.S. measures.

In short, Saab’s is not an isolated case of U.S. misconduct around enforcing its illegal sanctions, but an emerging pattern.

That the United States can engineer the arrest of a diplomat—who has immunity per international law even in a time of war—is a dangerous precedent. That the arrest was extraterritorial is worse. This harkens back to the flagrantly illegal and inhumane U.S. practice of extraordinary rendition, which was used to populate the Guantánamo torture chambers.

The award-winning movie The Mauritanian is about the true story of crusading lawyer Nancy Hollander, who successfully freed a tortured innocent man from the made-in-the-USA hell of Guantánamo. The Hollander character, played in the movie by Jodie Foster, says: “I am not just defending him, I am defending the rule of law.”

The real-life Nancy Hollander attended the webinar. A lawyer’s delegation to Cabo Verde in solidarity with Saab is being planned and a petition campaign on his behalf is underway. These efforts recognize that the defense of Alex Saab is a defense of the rule of international law against illegal U.S. sanctions.