The trial against the Venezuelan diplomat Alex Saab is likely to become one of the most emblematic cases that will determine the future of the relationships between countries in the years to come.
On 23rd December 2022 Florida Federal judge Robert Scola denied the Venezuelan Special Envoy’s motion to dismiss the indictment against him. According to the judge, Saab cannot be recognized as a representative of Nicolas Maduro’s government since the United States does not recognize Maduro’s legitimacy, according to a court filing.
Scola’s decision marks the conclusion of a shambolic case for the US government, where its witnesses were disqualified by the same judge and one had to be withdrawn to avoid further embarrassment. Scola gave US prosecutors a stroke of luck in a case they were about to lose by ignoring the strong evidence presented by the Venezuelan government related to Saab’s diplomatic credentials and overlooking the issue during the evidentiary hearing.
This case sends a clear message to the international community that nothing is out of bounds, not even the rights and protection normally assigned to diplomats, something even the US has consistently defended in recent history until now. There are allegations that Saab, who has cancer, suffered torture in his detention and lost a number of teeth as a consequence of this treatment.
The beginning of a tragedy
On June 2020 during the third trip of the Venezuelan Special Envoy Alex Saab, his plane stopped at Cabo Verde for refueling. His mission was to obtain critical goods from Iran, including gasoline, food and medical supplies to help Venezuela cope with the Covid-19 pandemic, and also the deprivations caused by the ongoing US economic sanctions against this South American country.
For this trip Saab was carrying a letter from President Nicolás Maduro to the Iranian Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, plus several other official communications related to various matters he was negotiating with the Iranian authorities.
As soon as he landed in Cape Verde, Saab was arrested by Cape Verdean authorities at the request of the United States District Court of Florida. Strangely the red alert given by Interpol was issued the day after Saab’s arrest, which gives a clue as to the political tint of this case.
The US court presented eight charges against Saab that were later dropped except for one related to conspiracy to launder money, as a part of a deal between the United States and the Republic of Cape Verde. The charge standing is punishable with a maximum sentence of 20 years of prison if found guilty.
The plot thickens
Alex Saab opposed his incarceration and extradition by raising his claim of Diplomatic Immunity before the Cape Verdean courts, but before his legal challenges were concluded, the Cape Verdean government forcibly transferred Saab to a US law enforcement agency in Miami in October 2021, where he remains until now.
The US extradition of Saab fell afoul of two rulings by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) Court of Justice on March 15th and June 24th 2021, which had ordered Cabo Verde to release Saab and awarded damages. Cape Verde is a signatory to the ECOWAS Court, which is considered an international court of primary jurisdiction.
Also in June 2021, the United Nations’ Human Rights Committee issued a decision demanding the suspension of the extradition of Alex Saab to the US. They were also calling for medical attention for the Venezuelan Special Envoy who suffers from cancer.
The US extradition of Alex Saab has strong elements of illegality, as Saab was taken by a Special US military force without a court order or any extradition treaty between US and Cape Verde. At the time of his removal the six-strong Cape Verdean military team guarding Saab’s jail was reduced to one soldier. On top of this, the US anchored a navy cruiser called “San Jacinto” outside Cape Verde’s international waters, to avoid Saab’s escape, something many found bordering on paranoia.
No limits to US abuse of international law
This case is another example of the extraterritorial powers the US is becoming accustomed to unilaterally exercising outside the legal conventions of international law.
Saab was in Cape Verde in transit to Iran under diplomatic activities unrelated to the US. The US economic sanctions against Venezuela do not have legal or juridical validity anywhere except US territory. Therefore, it is incredible that the US Department of Justice made up eight charges of money laundering without any evidence that led to Saab’s arrest, violating article 14(b) of the 1961 Vienna Convention of Diplomatic Relations.
In addition, the Venezuelan Special Envoy is entitled to immunity under the above convention which includes the right of transit, guarantees safe passage and also grants personal inviolability and immunity from arrest and detention (Article 40, 1961 Vienna Convention).
Apart from the procedural flaws of this case highlighted by the ECOWAS Court and the United Nations rulings, Saab’s extradition took place a day before the presidential elections in Cape Verde won by the opposition candidate from the Social Democratic Party (PAICV), who had promised to free Saab if he got into power.
The injustice in this little-known case reminds us that the United States is in danger of becoming a rogue state, where not even international law and diplomatic status can protect any diplomat in the world.
The Venezuelan government has declared that the US extradition of Alex Saab was a kidnapping and has vowed to defend him.
The US is bound by its treaty obligations and customary international law to recognize the diplomatic status of envoys from third countries conducting diplomatic missions such as in the case of Alex Saab. Let’s hope this case does not set a precedent that will send shudders of fear around the international diplomatic community.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Venezuelanalysis editorial staff.