The arrest, detention of Venezuela’s Alex Saab in Cape Verde: One year on

Alex Saab

It’s been a year since Alex Saab, a Venezuelan businessman and diplomat was arrested and detained in Cape Verde while on his way to Iran on a mission for Venezuela.

The case is one that has gained a lot of media attention and is being closely followed by diplomats, human rights activities and journalists to see how authorities directly involved will handle the simple yet complex issue.

The US government under the leadership of Donald Trump requested of Cape Verde to arrest Mr. Saab over allegations that he was involved in money laundering and had to be face prosecution on US soil.

After the arrest, the US again requested that the businessman be extradited to the US to face charges.

This request began the long tussle.

Venezuela insisted that Mr. Saab was on a diplomatic mission for them as a Special Envoy and was on his way to get food and medical supplies amidst the COVID-19 pandemic hence cannot be subjected to such a treatment.

“In violation of international law and norms, clearly corresponds with the actions of aggression and siege against the Venezuelan people, undertaken by the government of the United States with the aim of abruptly affecting and interrupting efforts on behalf of the Bolivarian government, aimed at guaranteeing the right to food, health and other basic rights of the Venezuelan people,”  the Venezuelan government said in a statement.

Lawyers for Mr. Saab, including the renowned Jose-Manuel Pinto Monteiro and Femi Falana argued strongly on this line against their clients detention and request for extradition from the US.

They insisted that as a diplomat, he enjoys immunity and thus should not have been arrested.

While there wasn’t an extradition treaty between the Cape Verde and the US, the former accepted the US’ request for extradition.

That development prompted lawyers for quickly file a suit at the ECOWAS court to challenge Cape Verde’s decision on the grounds of abuse of his human rights.

Femi Falana, the lead counsel for Alex Saab at the ECOWAS court

“Cape Verde’s wilful violation of its own laws, and customary international law, will also tarnish the ECOWAS region’s commitment to upholding the highest standards of human rights and legal protections,” Baltasar Garzón, a former Spanish judge and one of the attorneys on the case, said at the time.

In November 2020, the case was heard. The ECOWAS court in ruling ECW/CCJ/RUL/07/2020 accepted that Alex Saab was a diplomat and that his arrest was in violation of the Vienna Conventions on diplomatic relations.

Cape Verde did not immediately comply with the ruling, as an indication of its disagreement with it.

All the while Mr. Saab’s lawyers raised various issues including the failure of Cape Verdean authorities to grant Mr. Saab access to medical attention although his health was said to be deteriorating in prison.

Karol Sikora, the Chief Medical Officer of Rutherford Health in the UK, who was the specialist brought in to provide medical care for Alex Saab said he was disappointed at the Cape Verdean authorities for disobeying the court order and blocking his from seeing Alex Saab.

He warned that “if he [Alex Saab] does not receive medical care, he will develop fast invasive cancer of the stomach.”

Alex Saab given new appointment

Venezuela, in a major move on December 24, 2020 announced that it had appointed Alex Saab as its Alternate Permanent Representative to the African Union (AU).

“What is clear is that the African Union considers the immunity of high-ranking officials as something to be taken seriously. It therefore stands to reason that the African Union will expect all its member States, including Cabo Verde, to respect the international status of representatives of governments accredited to the organisation. These now include Mr Alex Saab,” Rutsel Martha, a member of Mr Saab’s defense team, said in December. 

Appeal extradition

Lawyers for Alex Saab in January appealed a ruling by a Cape Verdean court authorising the extradition of Alex Saab to the US, arguing that the move was foreign to the country’s legal jurisprudence.

‘ECOWAS’ Lacks Jurisdiction

At another hearing before the ECOWAS court, legal representative for Cape Verde, Henrique Borges argued that the ECOWAS court does not have jurisdiction on the matter and cannot make decisions  for an independent Cape Verde.

He said Cape Verde did not assent to the Additional Protocols of the ECOWAS court during the ECOWAS meeting years ago hence cannot be bound by the court’s decision.

His second argument was to the effect that Mr. Saab cannot be claimed to be a diplomat to be accorded diplomatic immunity.

Reacting to this argument, the Venezuelan diplomat’s legal team, led by Femi Falana, faulted Mr Borges arguments by using the Revised Treaty (Article 15) and Additional Protocols 2005.

“Cape Verde cannot claim that Alex Saab is not a diplomat as he is a Special Envoy to Iran and recognised in that role by Iran,” he argued. 

ECOWAS court orders release of Alex Saab

On March 15, 2021, the ECOWAS court delivered its final ruling on the Alex Saab case. Justice Januaria Costa in delivering the judgement said the arrest of Mr. Saab was arbitrary and illegal since the alleged Interpol Red Alert on whose basis the arrest was done, was given a day after the arrest.

The court also awarded a $200,000 compensation against Cape Verde to be paid to Alex Saab.

It again ruled that all extradition processes of Alex Saab be halted.

“We found that his arrest was arbitrarily done by the criminal police of Cape Verde” and his subsequent detention are “all illegal,” the court ruled.

Cape Verde urged to comply

Femi Falana consequently wrote to the Cape Verde’s President Jorge Fonseca, and Prime Minister, Jose Silva asking them to immediately comply with the ECOWAS court’s ruling on the matter.

“As an important member State of the African Union and the ECOWAS, the Republic of Cabo Verde has both legal and moral responsibility to respect the sanctity, integrity, authority and independence of the community court of Justice,” the letter read in part.

“Having fully participated in the ECOWAS Court’s process (as evidenced by the attendance and participation of your counsel Dr Henrique Borges on both 5 February and 15 March) and therefore submitted to the jurisdiction of the ECOWAS Court, we would expect your immediate compliance with the Honourable Court’s decision,” Falana added.

Counter-ruling in Cape Verde

The Supreme Court of Cape Verde in a counter-ruling days after the ECOWAS court’s decision gave the green light for Alex Saab’s extradition. The court’s point was that Cape Verde was not a signatory to the Protocol of 2005 establishing the regional court, adding that ECOWAS itself is not “a supranational organisation”.

By holding ECOWAS to be a non-supranational organisation implies that the country does not accept ECOWAS’ power or influence that transcends national boundaries or governments.

“For all the reasons that are exposed to the thesis that intends to see ECOWAS a supranational organisation for the purposes of the provisions of article 12, paragraph 3, of the Constitution of the Republic, it cannot be accepted by the Cape Verdean Judicial Courts,” the country’s apex court ruled.

It added, “Therefore, as ECOWAS is not a supranational organisation for the time being, and the State of Cape Verde has not even signed the 2005 Protocol, there is no basis for it to be considered linked to such an instrument.”

Request for sanction against Cape Verde

Femi Falana upon the Cape Verdean court’s ruling filed a motion at the ECOWAS Commission seeking that Cape Verde should be punished for ignoring the ECOWAS court ruling.

He directly requested an imposition of a travel ban throughout the ECOWAS member states against some Cape Verde government officials and their family members including the President, Prime Minister, Foreign Affairs Minister and the Minister of Defence.

He also called for the suspension of new ECOWAS loans, execution of ongoing ECOWAS projects or assistance programmes to Cape Verde and asked that Cape Verde be excluded from putting in candidates for statutory and professional posts in ECOWAS, suspension of voting rights in ECOWAS and suspension from participation in the activities of ECOWAS. 

Swiss investigation dropped

A three-year-long investigation that was ongoing into the dealing of Alex Saab in Switzerland to ascertain an allegation of money laundering was also dropped in March.

The probe was initiated various Swiss banks reportedly lodged complaints of suspected money laundering.

The prosecutor concluded that the evidence from this was insufficient to bring formal charges against Alex Saab.

Lawyers for Alex Saab described the development as a welcoming news that strengthens the view that the allegations against the businessman is false.

UN Human Rights Commission intervenes

The UN Human Rights Commission after receiving a submission on the ongoing issue directed Cape Verde on June 8, 2021 to stop any process to extradite Alex Saab to the US.

In a letter signed by Helene Tigroudja and Arif Bulkan of its Human Rights Committee Special Rapporteurs on New Communications and Interim Measures, the Commission said the move was made pursuant to rule 94 of the Committee’s rules of procedure.

“The State party has been requested to refrain from extraditing Mr. Alex Nain Saab Moran to the United States of America while his case is under consideration by the Committee or until further notice,” excerpts of the letter read.

Cape Verde was also directed to ensure that Mr. Saab has access to proper medical care.

The Commission has since given Cape Verde up to February 2022 to give its response.

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