The US Plan to Imprison Businesspeople in other Countries for “Violating” Illegal US Sanctions: The Case of Alex Saab

by Chicago ALBA Solidarity

Image from Feb 2021 the protest in Caracas, Venezuela. (Premium Times)

Alex Saad was detained in Cape Verde June 12, 2020 during a stopover to Iran, to be extradited to the US for the “crime” of violating US unilateral sanctions on Venezuela. He had been on a mission to acquire basic food and medicine to supply the government’s social welfare food program (CLAP). 

The US uses economic sanctions as a tool to overthrow governments, such as Venezuela’s, that do not kow-tow to it. Sanctions are a weapon of war on civilians the US uses to “make the economy scream,” preventing the import of necessities such as food, medicine, and equipment to keep infrastructure and industries running. Sanctions drive capital flight from countries as corporations and financial institutions seek to distance themselves and avoid being targeted themselves. 

US sanctions have both world reach and crippling effect because 95% of trade and currency exchange between countries takes place with US dollars or the currencies of its close allies. These financial and trade transactions must go through the US dominated SWIFT banking system, which enables the US to block money transfers for the smallest transaction and to confiscate billions of dollars held by targeted governments and individuals. By controlling the international financial system, Washington can demand banks in foreign countries accept US restrictions or face sanctions themselves.

The United Nations makes clear that US sanctions are unilateral coercive measures that violate international laws. The UN General Assembly has repeatedly called on all states not to recognize or apply unilateral coercive measures, such as those employed by the US. 

Despite this, the US continues to freely flaunt the UN by imposing these unilateral sanctions on countries, such as Venezuela, where they had already contributed to over 100,000 deaths by March 2020. 

The US recently has recently taken its unilateral coercive measures to an even more ominous level by attempting to extradite foreign businesspeople who have been abiding by international law rather than these US coercive measures. The cases of Alex Saab, a Venezuelan, and Meng Wanzhou from China’s Huawei tech giant and Mun Chol Myong from North Korea are each charged with violating US sanctions even though all are non-US citizens living outside the US, conducting business outside the US. (For the full article on all these cases see here or here).

The Case of Venezuelan special envoy Alex Saab

The Obama administration began unilateral sanctions against Venezuela in 2015 with the utterly baseless claim that Venezuela presents “an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security” of the US. As Reuters noted at the time, “Declaring any country a threat to national security is the first step in starting a US sanctions program.”

Saab, a Venezuelan businessman, is a special envoy of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, holding diplomatic immunity. He was on route to Iran to acquire basic food, medicine and medical equipment needed by Venezuela. He was detained, in effect kidnapped, in Cape Verde in June 2020, and has been held since that time, first in prison and now under house arrest. Saab points out that his “illegal detention is entirely politically motivated.”

The US charged Saab with money laundering. “Money laundering” in this case means nothing more than making international trade transactions that pass through the US controlled SWIFT financial system; it is the charge the US uses to enforce its unilateral coercive measures on the rest of the world.

Saab explained, “I have worked since 2015 to ensure the supply of basic food and medicine and other items to supply the government’s social welfare food program (CLAP). Since April 2018 I have been working as a servant of the State, as a Special Envoy and not as a private businessman.” In other words, he was arrested for not adhering to US sanctions on his people in his missions of buying food for the Venezuelan people suffering under these sanctions.

Saab said in a recent interview, “For seven months…from the first day of my abduction, they tortured me and pressured me to sign voluntary extradition declarations and bear false witness against my government.” He refused, stating “President Maduro has shown incredible leadership in the face of unprecedented sanctions and dirty political tricks from the US. I am honored to be able to assist President Maduro in any way I can, as he seeks to ensure the well-being of the people of Venezuela.” In jail he was kept in the dark for 23 hours a day, “lying on the concrete [floor].” He partially lost his eyesight. “I was forbidden to speak to anyone inside the prison, and everyone else was forbidden to speak to me…I have lost 25 kilos [55 pounds].”

On March 25, 2021, courts in Switzerland, determining there was no evidence that Saab committed any irregularity, formally closed its two-year investigation against him for money laundering through Swiss banks. Soon after the Swiss statement, on March 31, the US Treasury Department withdrew the sanctions that President Trump had issued on a group of companies allegedly linked to Alex Saab. 

While the Cape Verdean authorities approved his extradition to the US, the court of justice of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), declared his detention illegal and therefore he could not be extradited. African Bar Association likewise ruled that the diplomatic envoy should not be incarcerated. Nevertheless, the US under President Biden demands Cape Verde keep Saab under house arrest pending coming extradition.

The case of Saab, like that of Meng Wanzhou and Mun Chol Myong, opens the door for Washington to charge and extradite any person in the world for “organized crime, money laundering or financing of terrorism,” when they engage in perfectly legal international trade which the US declares violate its own illegal unilateral sanctions on countries. 

Join us when we sponsor a webinar with Alex Saab’s lawyers Wednesday May 19, 7pm ET in order to further publicize his case. Register here!