The kidnapping of Alex Saab and the human cost of U.S. hegemony

by Eduardo Rodríguez
October 26, 2023
reprinted from Liberation News

On June 12, 2020, Special Envoy to the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, Alex Nain Saab Moran, was arrested in Cabo Verde at the behest of the United States. Special Envoy Saab was in Cabo Verde on a refueling stop while on his way to Iran as part of a series of diplomatic missions to secure fuel, medicine, and basic foodstuffs for the Venezuelan people. This was at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, at a time when the inhuman blockade against Venezuela was intensifying and resources were scarcer than ever. Despite his diplomatic status, and the fact that he was on a special mission to bring aid to his people in the middle of a global pandemic, on October 16, 2021, Alex Saab was extradited to the U.S. to face charges of conspiracy to launder money. As of this writing, no evidence has been provided by the U.S. to substantiate these charges.

What’s more, according to international law, Saab’s status as special envoy should have granted him diplomatic immunity and prevented his extradition, making his “extradition” nothing more than the kidnapping of a foreign diplomat by the United States. Even before this kidnapping took place, several regional and international bodies, including the Court of Justice of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the United Nations Human Rights Committee, expressed concern over the situation and called for Saab’s release. Nearly three years later, however, Saab is still in U.S. custody at the Federal Detention Center of Miami, and his wife Camila and extended family still face persecution from the U.S. and its allies. The unlawful nature of his detainment, and, as we’ll see, the blatant political motivations behind it, make Saab a political prisoner, a human sacrifice in the U.S.’ continued quest for global hegemony.

Who is Alex Saab?

Alex Saab was born in Colombia, on December 21, 1971, but holds Venezuelan citizenship. He has a degree in economics and philosophy and is the father of five children. In the early 2000s, Alex Saab was a businessman working in textile exports; he was also involved in construction projects for the development of social housing in Venezuela. In March 2015, Alex Saab’s life would change after President Barack Obama signed Executive Order 13692, which declared Venezuela “an unusual and extraordinary threat,” ramping up sanctions against the Caribbean nation. To address the shortages caused by the new sanctions, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro created the social program Local Supply and Production Committees (CLAP). The program was a success, providing 10 million families with subsidized food, thanks in large part to Saab, who obtained important trade agreements with other countries.

His crucial role in the program’s success led to him being appointed special envoy for humanitarian affairs of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela on April 9, 2018. His role as special envoy was to procure basic foodstuffs, medicines, medical equipment, and fuel from the few countries still willing to trade with Venezuela in spite of U.S. sanctions.

In March and April 2020, Special Envoy Saab went on two diplomatic missions to Iran. The first aimed to broaden commercial ties between Venezuela and Iran, and to procure 220 containers of basic foodstuffs and medicines. The second mission was focused on the procurement of urgently needed gasoline and medicines, as Venezuela was suffering at the time not only from the illegal sanctions imposed by the U.S. but from the devastating COVID-19 pandemic. On April 1, 2020, at the height of the pandemic, Saab went on a third mission to Iran, this time to negotiate trade agreements with the Iranian government and the country’s private sector. It was during this third mission that he was arrested in Cabo Verde, and subsequently extradited to the United States.

Unlawful Detainment and Torture

On June 12, 2020, at the request of the United States, Special Envoy Saab was unlawfully detained in Cabo Verde on the basis of an INTERPOL red notice. Incredibly, the notice was issued under the name of another individual. Furthermore, at the time of his unlawful arrest, Saab was not presented with the red notice or even an arrest warrant, and he was detained even after informing local law enforcement that he was a diplomat and was carrying documents confirming his status. This was a blatant violation of numerous international laws that protect the freedom of movement of diplomats. On June 25, 2020, following an urgent request by the Venezuelan government, INTERPOL canceled the red notice. However, the Cabo Verde authorities refused to release the diplomat.

On June 29, 2020, the United States Embassy in Cabo Verde requested the local authorities to extradite Saab to the United States pursuant to an indictment filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida in July of the previous year. In March 2021, the ECOWAS Court of Justice, ordered Cabo Verde to release Special Envoy Saab immediately, and to terminate all procedures and processes to extradite him to the United States. Despite the lack of legal basis for his arrest, and the pleas from the ECOWAS Court for his release, Alex Saab was left to languish for another year in a Cabo Verde prison. The conditions of his unlawful imprisonment were nothing short of inhumane.

In Cabo Verde, Saab was held in solitary confinement, in a dark cell without adequate ventilation.

He was also subjected to physical torture for hours–including putting a bag over his head to asphyxiate him and pulling out two of his molars–to force him to sign a declaration against Venezuela. Saab is also a stomach cancer survivor and diabetic, and his brutal treatment only exacerbated these pre-existing conditions. Since his initial detention, Saab has lost more than 40 pounds and is currently experiencing bleeding from the digestive tract, which his family fears are signs that his cancer has come back. In July 2021, as his condition worsened, a doctor was able to visit Saab in prison. In his report, the doctor recommended access to proper medical care. The recommendation was ignored by the Cabo Verde authorities. In September of that same year, the doctor again visited Saab, and issued a second report in which he emphasized the need for Saab to receive specialized medical attention and urged the authorities to reconsider this issue. The Cabo Verde authorities again ignored the doctor’s recommendations.

On July 19, 2021, the United Nations Human Rights Council’s Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (WGAD), in a letter where they refer to “Ambassador Saab,” requested that the Government of Cabo Verde explain the legal basis for the detention of an official with diplomatic immunity, and to explain the allegations of torture and human rights violations committed against him. However, before these questions were answered, and before his case was processed, on October 16, 2021, in defiance of both local and international law, and without even notifying his lawyers or his family, the Cabo Verde authorities extradited Saab to the US.

Criminalizing Aid

Alex Saab is currently being held in the Federal Detention Center of Miami. His health is deteriorating; he has been vomiting blood for weeks and is still being denied medical attention.

His wife and children have not seen him in two years and eight months. Further, in another mockery of international law, the U.S. has even denied Venezuela’s requests to grant him consular visits, which are protected under Article 36 of the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations.

The charges against Saab stem from a 2019 indictment in Miami federal court on alleged charges of conspiracy to launder money, to which Saab pleaded not guilty. According to the U.S. government, Saab’s supposed crime was conducting international trade that circumvented U.S. sanctions. For Washington, it seems, the diplomat of a sovereign state securing relief for his people by engaging in trade with another sovereign government is a crime. In fact, a two-year investigation by the Swiss government into Saab’s transactions with Swiss banks concluded in March 2021 that there was no money laundering.

Fraudulent charges notwithstanding, as mentioned above, Saab’s diplomatic immunity alone should have prevented his extradition. On these grounds, his lawyers filed a motion to dismiss the charges on January 21, 2021. But on December 24, 2022, Florida judge Robert Scola rejected the motion to dismiss by ruling against claims to diplomatic immunity. Scola argued that because the U.S. government does not “recognize” the Maduro government, this should disqualify any Venezuelan appointees of diplomatic status. This comes after the Trump administration public endorsement of U.S. puppet president Juan Guaidó’s self-proclamation as “interim president” of Venezuela. The judge further cited alleged inconsistencies in the documents submitted by Saab’s lawyers as evidence of his diplomatic position, stating: “Against this sum of evidentiary inconsistencies and indications of documentary manipulation, the Court is left to conclude that the Maduro regime has, in a post hoc manner, done its best to imprint upon Saab Moran a diplomatic status that he did not factually possess on the [date of his arrest].”

There is, however, overwhelming evidence that the U.S. government not only was aware of Saab’s diplomatic status prior to his arrest in Cabo Verde, but that they spent more than a year negotiating his unlawful extradition with the complicit Cabo Verde government. What’s more, some U.S. officials were so sure of their impunity that they published evidence of their illegality.

In his 2022 book, A Sacred Oath, former U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark T. Esper flatly states that “The US, in fact, knew that Alex Saab was on a Special Mission to negotiate an agreement between Iran and Venezuela to receive more fuel, food and medical supplies.” In another book, Never Give an Inch, Trump’s Secretary of State Mike Pompeo writes: “…specialists had the opportunity to catch Alex Saab…. while he was on a mission to arrange an exchange of Venezuelan gold for Iranian oil…” In the same book, he boasts of the U.S.’ global reach, reach that allowed it to sabotage an Iranian-Venezuelan trade agreement and pressure a small island nation to arrest a “wanted” man. Furthermore, in 2022, James Story, U.S. ambassador to Venezuela in Colombia, said in an interview that Washington negotiated for 15 months with Cabo Verde to secure Saab’s extradition, and even congratulated the Cabo Verde government for “standing firm.”

Not only is this blatant and open disregard for international law appalling in its own right, it sets a dangerous precedent. That the U.S. is willing to enforce its already illegal sanctions through extraterritorial arrests of diplomats–officials whose immunity is protected even in times of war–should set off alarm bells in the international community.

We must stand with Alex Saab and the Venezuelan people and demand his immediate release.