The U.S. flies Alex Saab out from Cabo Verde without court order or extradition treaty

By Dan Kovalik, originally for the Council for Hemispheric Affairs

On October 16, Colombian businessman and Venezuelan Special Envoy
Alex Saab was in practical terms kidnapped for the second time, first by
Cabo Verde under pressure from Washington, and now by the U.S., in
flagrant violation of international law.

For nearly a year and a half, Saab had been imprisoned on the island
nation of Cabo Verde, 400 miles off the northwestern coast of Africa in
the Atlantic. As a Bloomberg article explains,
“Saab was detained June 12 [2020] when the private plane he was
traveling on from Venezuela to Iran made a fuel stop on the Cape Verdean
island of Sal.”[1]  What Bloomberg does
not mention is that Saab’s plane was forced to land in Cabo Verde
because two other nearby nations in mainland Africa, apparently under
pressure from the US, refused to let him land.[2]

There is no extradition treaty and there was no Interpol order

The capture of Saab was made without any proper legal basis. While
Washington prevailed upon Cabo Verde to seize Saab based upon the
pretext that the U.S. wanted to extradite him for alleged crimes, the
United States has no extradition treaty with Cabo Verde.[3] Moreover, while Cabo Verde authorities claimed that Saab was detained pursuant to a valid Interpol notice, a regional court in Nigeria found that the detention took place before the Interpol notice was issued, raising huge concerns about the legal validity of Saab’s detention and imprisonment.[4]

The U.N. also demanded the extradition to be suspended

Indeed, this regional court, The Economic Community of West African States Court of Justice (ECOWAS), explicitly “ruled that Saab should be freed because he was detained before the Red Notice was issued.”[5]  As Reuters explains, “decisions by that court are final and binding under a 1991 protocol.”

And then, on June 8, 2021, the United Nations Human Rights Committee issued a decision for
preliminary measures demanding that the extradition of Saab be
suspended and that Saab, who is suffering from cancer, be given the
necessary medical attention which he has been denied in Cabo Verde.[6]

On September 28, 2021, the African Bar Association issued a statement
demanding “the immediate and unconditional release of Ambassador Alex
Saab, respect for the ECOWAS Court and the Rule of Law in Africa by Cape
Verde and all Governments and Institutions in Africa as the African Bar
Association will continue to demand for the respect of treaty
obligations and the independence of Judiciary in Africa.”[7]

In spite of the foregoing and the overwhelming opposition to Saab’s extradition
amongst the citizenry of Cabo Verde, the Constitutional Court of Cabo
Verde approved the extradition of Saab to the U.S. in September of this
year.[8]  To
put it simply, Saab was kidnapped in Cabo Verde nearly a year and a
half ago, and there he was detained, until his “extradition” to the U.S.
on October 16th, despite the lack of any valid extradition treaty and
any valid arrest warrant at the time of capture.

While the allegations against him are hotly disputed, what is not in
doubt is that Washington is behind his persecution. And it is also clear
that the U.S. is interested in Saab, not because of any alleged crimes
but because he may hold the key to Venezuela’s ability to circumvent
Washington’s deadly illegal unilateral sanctions. First and foremost,
the allegations against Saab involve alleged embezzlement from food and
housing programs in Venezuela. Given that the U.S. is sanctioning
Venezuela in an attempt, inter alia, to undermine the ability of Venezuela to maintain such programs, it is patently obvious that Washington has no real, bona fide
concerns about someone allegedly taking kickbacks from such programs.
And moreover, under established U.S. judicial doctrines of comity and forum non conveniens,
it is Venezuela which, in the first instance, has the right to try to
prosecute such crimes committed within its own domestic jurisdiction.

Sanctions against Iran: U.S. real reasons to harass Ambassador Saab

Bloomberg explains that Alex Saab was on his way to Iran to negotiate the exchange of Venezuelan gold for much needed gasoline supplies.[9] 
Due to U.S. sanctions, the oil-rich nation of Venezuela is unable to
obtain the necessary chemicals and supplies to refine its oil into
gasoline which is needed to generate electricity and to transport goods
throughout the country.  In addition to gasoline, Saab was also
attempting to negotiate the purchase of food, medicines and other critical supplies which have also been made scarce in Venezuela due to U.S. sanctions.[10]

As explained by Alena Douhan, U.N. Special Rapporteur on the unilateral use of coercive measures on the enjoyment of human rights:

The hardening of sanctions faced by the
country since 2015 undermines . . . the state’s capacity to maintain
infrastructure and implement social projects. Today, Venezuela faces a
lack of necessary machinery, spare parts, electricity, water, fuel, gas,
food and medicine. Venezuelan assets frozen in United States, United
Kingdom and Portuguese banks amount to US $6 bln. The purchase of goods
and payments by public companies are reportedly blocked or frozen. . .

It has been reported that electricity lines are able to work at less than 20 per cent of their capacity today. . . .

An estimated 90% of households are
connected to the national water distribution system. Numerous
households, however, report frequent cuts because of electricity outages
affecting water pumps and the maintenance of infrastructure, and
because of the shortage of qualified maintenance staff. [11]

It appears that Alex Saab’s very adeptness in helping Venezuela to get around these sanctions – sanctions which Alena Douhan notes are illegal under international law — is the real reason for Washington’s interest in having him detained and extradited.[12]

As the New York Times explains,
while the U.S. has brought vague “money-laundering” charges against
Saab, “hard-liners at the Justice and State Departments, including
Elliot Abrams, the State Department’s special envoy for Iran and
Venezuela,” want to ensure Saab’s continued detention in Cabo Verde lest
they “lose an opportunity to punish Mr. [Nicolás] Maduro.”  As the Times
continues, the “months long detention of Mr. Saab has stripped Mr.
Maduro of an important ally and a major financial fixer at a time when
fewer countries are willing or able to come to Venezuela’s aid.  If Mr.
Saab cooperates with American officials, he could help untangle Mr.
Maduro’s economic web of support and assist the authorities in bringing
charges against other allies of the Venezuelan government.”[13]

And how did the U.S. ensure Cabo Verde’s compliance in all this?  It
has used a carrot and a stick approach. The carrot is significant: U.S.
economic development assistance to the island nation. In September of
2020, the U.S. embassy in Cabo Verde announced “the U.S. government
would invest $1.5 million in Cabo Verde to support the country’s efforts to mitigate the economic crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.”[14] And in June, 2021, the embassy announced a plan to build a new U.S. embassy adjacent to the government palace:

“This year, July 4 will mark a new
chapter in Cabo Verde-U.S. history as representatives of both countries
dedicate 4.5-hectares of land adjacent to the Government Palace in Praia
as the site for a new U.S. embassy.  This exciting, long-anticipated
project represents a more than $400 million investment by the U.S.
government in the bilateral relationship, with fully $100 million of
that total going directly into Cabo Verde’s economy, benefitting local
businesses and contractors and creating scores of construction jobs.”[15]

The stick is the deployment of old-fashioned “gun-boat diplomacy” — a term coined by President Teddy Roosevelt.  Thus, as the New York Times explains,
the U.S. had anchored the Navy Cruiser San Jacinto off the coast of
Cabo Verde to make sure that Saab did not escape somehow.  While U.S.
officials claimed that they were doing this in response to “threats
by Venezuela to take all measures to protect Saab’s human rights, the
presence of the gun ship appeared calculated as much to ensure no second
thoughts by the government of  Cabo Verde as it was to prevent some
rescue attempt by Venezuela or its ally Iran. [16]

Saab’s extradition case is currently before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th
Circuit which is to decide whether the U.S. has proper cause to
extradite Mr. Saab under U.S. and international law. Quite tellingly,
the U.S. prosecution has twice postponed the initial hearing in which it was to present evidence and arguments in favor of extradition. And, it has asked for a third postponement.[17]

The U.S. extracted Saab from Cabo Verde without court sanction

And, so, U.S. authorities, on October 16th, instead of waiting for the 11th
Circuit to decide the merits of the case – a case which they will
surely lose — have kidnapped Saab a second time, flying him out of Cabo
Verde to the U.S. without court sanction.  It is no coincidence that
this kidnapping took place, moreover, the day before Presidential
elections in Cabo Verde which brought to power a new leader opposed to Washington’s mistreatment of Saab.

Alex Saab is now sitting in a federal prison in Miami. This is a
flagrant violation of both international and U.S. domestic law. In
addition, this has already had huge international repercussions, with
the government of Venezuela suspending scheduled talks with the
opposition in response.

The actions of the U.S. and Cabo Verde against Alex Saab have dealt a
serious blow to international law and the security of diplomats
worldwide. It sets the dangerous precedent that an individual, and
especially a foreign diplomat, can be captured and detained without
warrant and then “extradited” to the US without a valid extradition
treaty and without an U.S. court authorization. This type of action
undermines the rule of law, and indeed establishes “the rule of the
jungle” wherein powerful countries like the US can simply ignore rights
of individuals to due process and to freedom from arbitrary detention to
bully developing countries such as Venezuela.


Dan Kovalik teaches International Human Rights at the
University of Pittsburgh School of Law, and he is one of COHA’s Senior
Research Fellows

COHA Senior Analyst William Camacaro provided research and editorial assistance for this article.



[1] “Maduro Financier Faces Extradition to U.S. After New Ruling.” Bloomberg. Mar 17, 2021. Accessed October 17, 2021.file:///C:\Users\Owner\Documents\3953-2021-c-adocx.pdf

[2] “Deal Maker for Venezuela’s Maduro Can Be Extradited to U.S., Court Rules.” Wall Street Journal. Jan 25, 2021. Accessed October 17, 2021.

[3] “U.S.-Indicted Dealmaker For Venezuela’s Maduro Detained On Way To Iran.” June 14, 2020. Accessed October 17, 2021.

[4] “Maduro Financier Faces Extradition to U.S. After New Ruling.” Bloomberg. Mar 17, 2021. Accessed October 17, 2021.

[5] Ibid.

[6] “UN Committee Rules on Detention of Venezuelan Diplomat Saab.” June 8, 2021. Accessed October 17, 2021

[7] “African Bar Association Statement on Venezuelan Diplomat Alex Saab.” Oct 22, 2021. Accessed October 17, 2021.

“Cape Verde Poll Shows Alex Saab Extradition Case will Harm Government
in October Elections.” AllAfrica Info Wire. Sep. 20, 2021. Accessed October 17, 2021.

[9] “Maduro Financier Faces Extradition to U.S. After New Ruling.” Bloomberg. Mar 17, 2021. Accessed October 17, 2021.

[10] Griffith, B. “Extradition of Alex Saab: US takes effort to starve Venezuelans to new lows.” People’s Dispatch. July 7, 2021. Accessed October 17, 2021.

Preliminary findings of the visit to the Bolivarian Republic of
Venezuela by the Special Rapporteur on the negative impact of unilateral
coercive measures on the enjoyment of human rights. Feb. 12, 2021. Accessed October 17, 2021.

[12] Ibid.

Schmitt, E., and Turkewitz, J. New York Times. “Navy Warship’s Secret
Mission Off West Africa Aims to Help Punish Venezuela.” Dec 22, 2020. Accessed October 17, 2021.

“The United States Provides Over $1.5 million to Help Cabo Verde
Respond to COVID-19.” Press Release – September 3, 2020. US Embassy,
Cabo Verde. Accessed October 17, 2021.

[15] “Article by U.S. Ambassador to Cabo Verde, Jeff Daigle – Land Dedication.” June 30, 2021. US Embassy, Cabo Verde. Accessed October 17, 2021.

[16] Schmitt, E. and Turkewitz, J. “Navy Warship’s Secret Mission Off West Africa Aims to Help Punish Venezuela.” New York Times. Accessed October 17, 2021.

[17] “Defense of Alex Saab Rejects Request for New Extension by US.” Oct 6, 2021. Accessed October 17, 2021.