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Crunch time for Alex Saab

Analysis

Crunch time for Alex Saab

The Cape Verde Constitutional Court has said it will communicate its decision about the extradition to the US of Venezuelan businessman Alex Saab by 24 August. The case has pitted Cape Verde against the Ecowas Regional Economic Community and the ruling of the Ecowas Community Court of Justice.

“America is back!” announced newly elected US President Joe Biden. To its old ways, it appears. The United States is intent on getting its hands on Venezuelan diplomat Alex Saab, who, according to a 15 March ruling of the ECOWAS Court of Justice, was arrested illegally in Cape Verde in June last year.

The US has used every trick in the book, cajoling, coercing and seducing the small island nation into extraditing the Venezuelan diplomat who last month was also added to the UK sanctions list, undoubtedly following US pressure. The US believes that getting Saab in front of an American court will hasten the illegal and politically motivated regime change it has wanted for over a decade in Venezuela.

Alex Saab, a Colombian by birth, is a businessman who initially provided services to the Chavez administration and, in more recent years, to the Maduro government, at a time when the country was facing crippling unilateral sanctions imposed by the United States.

Special envoy

Saab has been awarded a number of contracts for social welfare programmes, including an affordable housing project for which he and others have been accused of profiteering from. This was cited as the UK’s reason for adding him to its sanction list. He had become a key man for President Maduro in helping overcome the hardships brought about sanctions, and was sent to Iran as a special envoy on a humanitarian mission to secure essential goods for Venezuela at the height of the COVID epidemic.

It was while on this mission, during a routine refuelling stopover in Cape Verde, that Alex Saab was arrested, on 12 June 2020. However, it has since transpired that the arrest was illegal. No papers were presented during Saab’s arrest and documents now show that an Interpol notice was issued after his arrest. Furthermore, it was proved that the notice, in direct violation of Interpol’s own procedures, was not supported by an arrest warrant. Saab’s legal team are asking for an independent review of Interpol’s involvement in his arrest.

The Interpol notice was issued on charges of money laundering against Saab brought about a court in Miami in July 2019. The same charges in Switzerland were dropped in 2021 after a three year investigation by the Geneva Public Prosecutor citing a lack of clear evidence.

In a press conference held on 6th August, Alex Saab’s lawyers said that the case was emblematic of a series of flagrant and systematic violations of international norms and that the arrest and detention are being pursued by gross violations and challenges to all legal rationality. They had requested the suspension of the extradition procedure in accordance with the interim measures of The Human Rights Committee, but “surprisingly,” they said, “the government of Cape Verde remains totally deaf to all appeals to reason, to all appeals to comply with the law.”  

Saab is represented by Femi Falana, a Nigerian lawyer and human rights activist.

It seems clear to his legal team that the arrest is politically motivated, while the Americans seem to be willing to go to any lengths to get who they think is a key man to help accelerate the downfall of Nicolas Maduro. Interestingly, as much as they work hard to pursue anyone rendered to pose a threat to the USA, America does not sign up to international protocols that may incriminate their citizens or their practices.

Using a sleight of force, they sent a frigate last July near the waters of Cape Verde; many saw that as a sign from the Americans to tell the island nation that they are watching them and ready to flex their muscles.

The island nation, once a beacon for democracy and progress in Africa, has been accused recently of becoming a hub for money laundering and drug trafficking, with drugs transiting there from South America on their way to Europe. The frigate was sent during the Trump era. Under Biden, they seem to be using the carrot approach, having promised to invest $400m in the country, including $100m to build an embassy in the capital Praia, sited next to the presidential palace. Analysts say this may be the first step towards the US setting up a strategic military outpost in the country.

Diplomatic Immunity

Cape Verde’s President, when asked about the Saab case and American intervention has maintained that this is a matter for the courts, even though Saab could be released if the Cape Verdean administration recognised his status as a diplomat which would give him automatic immunity. A point made by the Cape Verde Supreme Court in March of this year.

It is clear from evidence submitted to both the ECOWAS Court of Justice and to local Cape Verdean courts that at the time of Venezuelan Alex Saab’s arrest on 12 June 2020, neither the United States nor Interpol were aware that Saab was a Special Envoy of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela.

The significance of this fact has been brought into sharp focus by the Court of Appeals of the 11th Circuit in its decision of 6 August that Saab’s appeal will proceed to the “merits stage” and further ordered the Department of Justice file its response within 30 days. Alex Saab’s lead Cape Verdean counsel, Dr Jose Manuel Pinto Monteiro, noted in a press release the ruling removes a significant procedural hurdle and, in his view “…indicates the 11th Circuit’s strong interest in the fundamental issue of Mr Saab’s diplomatic immunity.”

If the US Court agrees that Alex Saab was (and remains) a Special Envoy of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, then he was (and remains) entitled to diplomatic immunity. As a direct consequence of which the Miami indictment of July 2019 against Saab would have to be dismissed because as a diplomat Saab would be immune from prosecution. That would in turn mean that the US’s extradition request filed in Cape Verde would have to be withdrawn and Alex Saab would have to be immediately freed.

Recognition of Saab’s diplomatic status would be a blow to the Department of Justice which has spent significant time and money in trying to get Saab to the United States. It would also raise many questions about the role that Interpol played in causing Alex Saab to be arrested in the first place. 

Red flag

The Cape Verde Prosecutor General Luis Landim has admitted that neither Cape Verde nor Interpol were provided with a copy of an arrest warrant at the time of Saab’s arrest. As damning as that admission is for both, accepting the fact that Saab was (and remains) a lawfully appointed Special Envoy of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela means that Interpol should never have issued in “record time” the Red Notice against Alex Saab. Without the Red Notice Cape Verde, acting on instructions from Washington, could not and should not have arrested Saab. It also casts considerable doubt on the rational provided by Interpol when the Red Notice against Alex Saab was cancelled on 25 June 2020.

Venezuela, which invoked Saab’s immunity within a few hours of his arrest with the Cape Verde authorities, filed a formal challenge to the Red Notice on 15 June and again highlighted Saab’s Special Envoy status. Venezuela has always maintained that the Red Notice was cancelled once Interpol understood Saab to be a diplomat, as the Red Notice had been issued in contravention of Interpol’s own rules which prevent any Notice being issued against a diplomat. The US, however, claims that it “withdrew” the request as the “purpose for which the Red Notice had been issued was achieved”.

From a review of ECOWAS Court of Justice records, a clear impression is made that Interpol’s own internal procedures could not have been properly followed when the decision to issue the Red Notice was taken. There are also questions to be asked about the interaction between the Department of Justice (DoJ) and Interpol’s Head of Legal Affairs, who is on secondment to Interpol from the DoJ and why everything was seemingly done to facilitate the needs of the DoJ.

It sets a dangerous precedent as it appears that the notice was used to further a political agenda. Saab’s team also insist that no attempt was made by Interpol HQ to contact Alex Saab nor his lawyers nor NCB Caracas to confirm if there was any reason why a Red Notice should not be published against Saab. Had Interpol done so it would have been informed of Alex Saab’s diplomatic status and no Red Notice could have been issued, they claim. Instead, it appears according to evidence filed in the ECOWAS Court, Interpol was more intent on issuing the Red Notice in “record time” than following procedures.

It is for all these reasons that Saab’s team have requested Interpol carry an independent investigation to review in full its involvement in the arrest and detention of Alex Saab between 12 and 29 June 2020.

Alex Saab’s case was heard by the Cape Verde Constitutional Court on 13 August and the court has said it will announce its decision by 24 August. In a case that has the hallmark of Cold War politics, with the US fighting their battles on African turf and forcing a small island state to take sides, it is crunch time for Cape Verde. Should Saab be extradited, the country faces being kicked out of Ecowas for not complying with its own Regional Community. This would be a high price to pay for cosying up to the Americans, further damaging the country’s tattered reputation, putting political expediency ahead of the rule of law.

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