Venezuela’s special diplomatic envoy, Alex Saab, was extradited to the United States on Saturday October 16 after being detained in Cape Verde for 491 days. Saab was arrested in Cape Verde on June 12, 2020 at the request of the US government when his plane was refueling at the Amilcar Cabral International Airport on the island of Sal. Following his extradition on Saturday, the Venezuelan government released an official statement condemning Saab’s “kidnapping” by the US with complicity of Cape Verdean authorities.
Venezuela’s representative to the dialogue process in Mexico, Jorge Rodríguez, announced that the national government of Venezuela is suspending its participation in the dialogues. “We will not attend the round that should have begun tomorrow [October 17] as a profound expression of our protest against the brutal aggression against the person [Alex Saab],” Rodríguez announced in a press conference.
He added that the life of Saab is in danger and held the governments of the US and Cape Verde responsible for whatever happens to him. He also highlighted the multiple illegal elements of his detention, noting that Saab should enjoy diplomatic immunity as he was on official diplomatic business when he was arrested in June 2020. Saab was traveling to Iran to negotiate trade deals for food and medicine for Venezuelan public programs, including the CLAP (Local Committees of Supply and Production). He stated that Venezuela has vowed to take the case to the “all multilateral institutions of human rights”.
The official statement by Venezuela added that it “repudiates this grave human rights violation against a Venezuelan citizen, vested as a diplomat and a representative of our country to the world. This act sets a dangerous precedent for International Law.”
Since his arrest in June 2020, Venezuela had been waging a strong campaign for his release and to block his extradition to the United States. His defense team brought the case to Cape Verdean courts to appeal his illegal arrest, but the Constitutional Court of Cape Verde declared the appeal for the unconstitutionality of the illegal detention of Saab “inadmissible”.
In addition to his arrest being in violation of international law and norms, Venezuelan authorities also denounced that during his detention Saab suffered from torture by Cape Verdean authorities, which was verified by his family members, and that his basic civil and human rights were also violated.
Saab’s legal team had requested Cape Verdean authorities to transport him to the capital Praia, to receive necessary medical treatment as he suffers from multiple ailments including cancer. Despite a court in the country authorizing his evacuation, and requests from the Court of Justice of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the UN Human Rights Committee, the authorities never carried it out.
On March 15, 2021, the Court of Justice of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) had ordered the immediate release of Alex Saab and the payment of $200,000 “in reparation for the violation of human rights following his ‘illegal’ detention since 12th June 2020 at the request of the US.” The body also called for the immediate discontinuation of all extradition proceedings and processes against Saab to the US. They considered that his detention was “unlawful and a violation of Article 6 of the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights that guaranteed the right to personal liberty and security of the person.“
Justice Edward Amoako Asante, overseeing the hearing for the regional court had stated, “We found his arrest by the criminal police of Cape Verde was arbitrary and subsequent detention throughout the period until today was illegal…Cape Verde should immediately release the applicant from their custody and immediately stop all processes to extradite him.”
The United Nations Human Rights Committee has also called on the Cape Verdean government to halt Saab’s extradition.
Who is Alex Saab?
Saab, a businessman of Colombian origins, was sanctioned by the US Department of the Treasury in July 2019 for allegedly having “personally profited from overvalued contracts, including the Government’s food subsidy program [CLAP]”. The Department of the Treasury classified him as a “profiteer orchestrating a vast corruption network that has enabled former President Nicolás Maduro (Maduro) and his regime to significantly profit from food imports and distribution in Venezuela”.
These allegations however, were never backed up with concrete evidence. It is also important to note that the sanction against Saab was issued in the midst of the intensified attacks against Venezuela in 2019 when the US pushed forward multiple options to advance a coup d’état against the democratically elected government of Nicolás Maduro. Months earlier, a member of the far-right opposition, Juan Guaidó had unilaterally declared himself president of the country and provided the justification for the US to impose a series of extremely harsh unilateral coercive measures, including the usurping of Venezuela’s US-based oil subsidiary CITGO.
The food program which US officials accuse Saab of “profiteering” off of, the CLAP, was created in 2016 in a moment where unilateral coercive measures against the South American country were increasing and the impacts of these measures started to be felt in the economy. The program guarantees the distribution of food boxes with items of basic necessities such as oil, grains, pasta, protein, etc. at a subsidized price. With the 2017 and 2018 wave of unilateral coercive measures which saw a loss of $6 billion in oil revenue, a GDP decrease of 37.4% in 2019, and a 39.4% decrease in food importations, the CLAP boxes became a lifeline for over six million families in Venezuela. For many, the targeting of Saab, who played a crucial role in the CLAP program, sends a strong message about attacking Venezuela’s self-organized, community driven survival programs.
The Venezuelan government maintains that the persecution is yet another part of the campaign of aggression from Washington against the Bolivarian Republic. Saab himself had stated that the process against him has a clear “political motivation” which is to “overthrow President Maduro and force Venezuela to submit.”