The Court of Justice of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) ruled this Monday against the extradition of Colombian Alex Saab, alleged front man of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, from Cape Verde to the United States. In a hearing held at its headquarters in Abuja, the Nigerian capital, the ECOWAS Court, the bloc to which Cape Verde belongs, ruled in favor of Saab’s immediate release, although it remains to be seen whether the Cape Verdean authorities will abide by that. decision.
For more than nine months, the extradition of Saab, arrested on June 12 on the Cape Verdean island of Sal, at the request of the US Justice, has been delayed. The arrest occurred when the plane in which he was traveling stopped to refuel at the Amilcar Cabral International Airport and after Interpol issued a token for alleged money laundering. The defense of the businessman, who has become the main contractor of the Venezuelan Government for more than five years, has undertaken a strategy that reached the ECOWAS Court and that aims to turn the case into a diplomatic conflict. At the head of the legal team representing Saab is former Spanish judge Baltazar Garzón.
After the arrest, Venezuela alleged that Saab had the status of special envoy of the Maduro government and of “deputy permanent representative” before the African Union, in addition to Venezuelan nationality. For Caracas, Saab is a Venezuelan citizen and an “agent” of the Government who was “in transit” in Cape Verde, for which his lawyers maintain that “he had the right to personal inviolability as a special envoy from Venezuela.” Until the arrest, the businessman had always been in the shadows, as well as his ties with the Venezuelan president.
Accusations in the United States and Colombia of money laundering weigh on Saab. In 2019 he entered the list of sanctioned by the Treasury together with his partners and collaborators. In 2020, the Colombian Prosecutor’s Office confiscated assets in that country, where he has been wanted since 2018. Saab was also singled out last year by Washington as the orchestrator of a network that is dedicated to exporting Venezuelan oil in the shadow of the embargo imposed by the United States. To avoid sanctions, according to an investigation by EL PAÍS and the Armando.info portal, the scheme supposedly designed by Saab has disguised transactions of millions of barrels of crude oil as part of “humanitarian aid” agreements: the partners brought food and basic necessities to the South American country and the parastatal PDVSA paid them with oil. The White House affirms that it is a fraud, the Maduro government justifies that it has no option before the economic blockade.
The African court also ordered Cape Verde to pay compensation amounting to about 200,000 euros. The ECOWAS Court already ruled at the end of 2020 in favor of Saab’s house arrest, which Saab requested citing health problems in prison and which the Cape Verdean authorities reluctantly complied with. Saab has been in the custody of the military and agents of the National Police of the African country for more than a month.
The Venezuelan Embassy in Senegal, in charge of covering Cape Verde, also confirmed on its Twitter social network account that the ECOWAS Court “ordered the immediate release of Ambassador Alex Saab.” The court “declared that the capture and detention of Ambassador Saab was illegal, arbitrary and recognized the violation of his human rights. The decision involves the suspension of the extradition ”, indicated the Venezuelan legation in Dakar. The court then found that Cape Verdean Justice “acted outside its jurisdiction” when it detained him on June 12 to respond to an extradition request made by the United States.
The government and a Cape Verdean court had already approved the handover of Saab, but its defense appealed the decision to the country’s Supreme Court of Justice. On March 5, the Government of Venezuela demanded from Cape Verde the “immediate release” of the Colombian businessman, whose detention it considers illegal because it considers that the authorities of that country violated his diplomatic immunity. In addition to diplomatic defense, the Venezuelan government has launched an intense campaign in defense of the businessman, involved in food, construction, oil and gold businesses. Pints with the message “Free Saab” have appeared in Caracas, where a month ago a small concert was organized to ask for their freedom.
“My illegal detention is entirely politically motivated and it is pathetic that the Government of Cape Verde has bowed the knee to the United States,” Saab himself, 49, told EFE in an interview earlier this month. The Cape Verdean press also collected statements from Garzón, in which they welcomed the court’s decision. “We have defended the character of diplomatic agent and, therefore, of inviolability and immunity. We argue that Alex Saab’s arrest was illegal from the beginning. Therefore, we demand that Cape Verde comply without delay with each and every one of the points of this sentence “, said the portal Week.
Since 2015 investigative journalists in Venezuela from Armando.Info have revealed Saab’s commercial networks with Chavismo, which began in 2012 with the signing of a binational agreement between the late Hugo Chávez and former President Juan Manuel Santos for the construction of houses. Relations reached their highest point when Saab became the main supplier of the program of sale of imported food at low cost of the Local Committees of Supply and Production, by which the so-called CLAP boxes that are delivered to the poorest are delivered. . In 2017, former Venezuelan prosecutor Luisa Ortega accused him in 2017 of being one of Maduro’s front men.
The businessman, born in Barranquilla (Colombia) and of Lebanese origin, is related to several companies, including Group Grand Limited, accused of supplying CLAP products at a premium. A US government official indicated in July 2019 that with this plot, the Barranquilla-born businessman and three of Maduro’s stepchildren apparently profited with “hundreds of millions of dollars,” while Venezuela was going through the worst food supply crisis and the indicators of malnutrition and poverty increased. In addition, this program has been denounced for the delivery of low-quality products and their political use to coerce voters.
In 2019, Washington also filed charges against Saab and its right-hand man, Álvaro Enrique Pulido, whom it accuses of laundering up to $ 350 million allegedly defrauded through the exchange control system in Venezuela. The United States has sanctioned and frozen assets of more than a hundred officials, but the arrest of Saab has been the case that has most mobilized Chavismo.