By Owei Lakemfa
Venezuelan Special Envoy and Ambassador to the African Union, Alex Nain Saab Morán who, against the established diplomatic practice of immunity, had been illegally detained in Cape Verde for sixteen months and in the United States for two years, was freed on Wednesday, December 20, 2023.
He was exchanged for ten American prisoners in Venezuela who had been imprisoned for various crimes including an armed invasion, terrorism, kidnapping and extortion. The prisoner swap, brokered by Qatar took place in the Caribbean island nation of St. Vincent and the Grenadines.
Saab was abducted in the American tradition of extraordinary rendition while on a humanitarian mission to buy food and medicines for his country to fight the Covid-19 pandemic. This, with the fact that he is an accredited diplomat with immunity may have been responsible for the inability of the US to proceed with his trial. In contrast, the Americans exchanged including mercenaries and terrorists went through normal court processes. So, when the American White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan twitted that: “All the Americans who were wrongfully detained in Venezuela are now safely back in the United States.” he knew the aspect that they were “wrongfully detained” is false.
For instance, amongst the Americans released were former Green Berets, Luke Denman and Airan Berry, who were captured when mercenaries invaded Venezuela in 2020. While the US claimed that the invasion was a fiction manufactured by the Venezuelan government to divert attention from internal economic problems, the families and colleagues of the men were crying in the US to confirm that the men were not ghosts and that the US should intervene to get them released.
The leader of the invasion, Florida-based ex-Green Beret and three-time Bronze Star US combat veteran, Jordan Goudreau, who escaped back to America, confessed to the Associated Press that the invasion truly took place and that it was an attempt to “liberate” Venezuela in a mission called ‘Operation Gideon.’
He told the press of his attempts in the US to get his colleagues freed: “I’ve tried to engage everybody I know at every level. Nobody’s returning my calls, It’s a nightmare.” Goudreau had shown the press a copy of an alleged $200m contract he signed with the US-backed Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido to carry out the invasion. He mentioned a captured Venezuelan National Guardsman Captain Antonio Sequea, as a commander working with him inside the country. A total of ten mercenaries were amongst the 114 arrested during the invasion. It is incredible that thirteen years later, the US Security Adviser would claim that these men were “wrongfully detained.”
In contrast, Saab, neither attacked anyone nor invaded any territory. He was on a humanitarian Special Mission to purchase basic supplies like food and medicines from Iran for his people. However, the US claimed the mission amounted to bursting the sanctions it had imposed on Venezuela and Iran, so the funds Saab was carrying, amounted to money laundering.
Therefore, when the diplomat’s aircraft made a stopover to refuel in the West African country of Cape Verde on June 12, 2020, America used its diplomatic and economic might to force the later to detain Saab. Earlier, the US had tried to make Switzerland put Saab on trial for allegedly using the Swiss UBS Bank America for money laundering. But the Geneva Public Prosecutor had declared that it was pointless investigating such a claim.
A month after Saab’s detention in Cape Verde, the US had in July, 2020 tried to seize four vessels carrying Iranian fuel to Venezuela on the ridiculous excuse that the Iranian government had stolen the oil from the Iranian people.
Ten years earlier, the US had been involved in criminal acts like extraordinary rendition, which is the abduction of persons in various countries, torturing and dehumanising them and throwing them in prison without trial. This was the same tactics it used on Saab, save for two variations. First, it used another country, rather than its own forces to abduct Saab, and secondly, it wanted the diplomat sent to its territory rather than to another country.
Ambassador Saab contacted the internationally acclaimed Nigerian Human Rights lawyer, Mr Femi Falana to take his abduction case to the regional Economic Community of West African States, ECOWAS Court in Abuja. Saab asked the court: “for the enforcement of his human rights to dignity, liberty, fair hearing and freedom of movement guaranteed by Articles 5, 6, 7 and 12 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights respectively.”
On March 15, 2021, the ECOWAS Court ordered Saab’s release as there was even no INTERPOL Red Notice nor an arrest warrant for him. It also ordered that the US extradition process be terminated immediately and Saab paid $200m for illegal detention.
Also, the United Nations Human Rights Commission on June 8, 2021 demanded that Saab be freed. Additionally, the African Bar Association on September 28, 2021 demanded that Cape Verde should obey the ECOWAS Court judgement.
Falana also reported that the: ”African Commission on Human and Peoples Rights granted a provisional order to restrain Cape Verde from extraditing him to the United States pending the determination of the complaint of his human rights to dignity, life and freedom of movement.”
Tragically, Cape Verde a little country of 4,033 square kilometres and a population of 549,935 could not withstand the bullying of the US even when both countries had no bilateral extradition agreement. It allowed its sovereignty to be raped by yielding to US pressures. So in October 2021, it handed the hapless diplomat to the Americans who flew him to Florida.
However in two years, the US in its own court, could not make the alleged case of money laundering to stick. Also, it could not get round the fact that Saab, as a diplomat has diplomatic immunity under the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations (1961) which provides for the protection of the diplomat and his or her family from any form of arrest or detention.
The US only made a fool of itself when it claimed that Saab is not a true diplomat because he was appointed by President Nicolas Maduro. Who else can appoint a country’s diplomat but its sovereign Head of State?
Across the world, ‘Free Alex Saab’ groups emerged demanding his freedom. Here in Nigeria, the Venezuelan Solidarity Campaign in Nigeria, VSCN joined the international campaign for his release. The VSCN reacting to Saab’s release characterised it as a victory for international solidarity grassroots movements. VSCN Coordinator, Dimeji Macaulay, in a statement said: “The release of Mr Alex Saab again shows that if we fight, we can win. If we don’t fight, we’ve already lost.” Ambassador Saab’s release restored some confidence in the diplomatic traditions of humanity.
Owei Lakemfa, a former secretary general of Organisation of African Trade Union Unity (OATUU), is a human rights activist, journalist, and author.