Day 1 of Legal Hearing Concerning US Political Prisoner Alex Saab’s Diplomatic Status

The long delayed official hearing on the question of the Venezuela Special Envoy Alex Saab’s status as a diplomat finally began December 12, 2022. The US government had him seized in Cape Verde two and a half years ago, June 12, 2020, in violation of his  diplomatic immunity as guaranteed in the Geneva Convention. At present, a hearing – which occurs before a judge, who makes the determination, not before a jury, as in the case of a trial –  is taking place in Miami over the question of Alex Saab’s status, which the US prosecutors dispute. If this were a simpy case of deciding if a person with a diplomatic passport, carrying a sealed official letter from one head of state to another head of state, were on a diplomatic mission, it would be a no-brainer.

However, Alex Saab was a central Venezuelan figure in finding ways of circumventing the brutal and illegal US – European – Canadian blockade on his country. As former US Defense Secretary Mark Esper wrote, Saab is a key asset: “It was important to get custody of him. This could provide a real roadmap for the US government to unravel the Venezuelan government’s illicit  plans and bring them to justice,” ie, plans to being food, medicine and gas to Venezuela without the US being able to stop it. 

Therefore, the issue becomes how the US prosecutors will conjure up a story that flies in the face of overwhelming evidence concerning Alex Saab’s actual diplomatic status. On their side, the prosecutors are backed by the power of the US government and its courts, where furthering US regime change operations (as in Venezuela) can outweigh evidence in court. Plus, they are arguing in Miami, where the Cuban 5 had previously been convicted on shockingly bogus charges.

An audience of about thirty people attended the court opening, with most being supporters of Alex Saab. Alex Saab came in dressed in a prison jump suit and handcuffs, which were later removed during the hearing. He remained attentive and emotionless throughout the day.

Saab’s legal team’s (of six) opening argument to the judge stated the issue revolved around whether he was a Special Envoy. Special envoys are agents appointed as personal representative of presidents or  secretaries of state. As of October 3, 2022, Biden had appointed 30 special envoys, including John Kerry, special presidential envoy for climate change. Special envoys have diplomatic status.

Saab defense argued if Saab satisfied three conditions when he was arrested and jailed in Cape Verde on orders of the US, then he was a Special Envoy: 1. Was he sent on an official mission as a Special Envoy of the government of Venezuela;  2. Did the receiving state (Iran) recognize him as a Special Envoy; 3. Was Alex Saab on a mission to Iran when he was detained? On all three, he obviously was.

Alex Saab had been appointed a Special Envoy in 2018 by the Maduro government of Venezuela, when the US still recognized his government as the government of Venezuela. Saab had traveled to Iran as a Special Envoy in March and April of 2020, and prior to that to Russia. He was arrested June 12, 2020 on another diplomatic mission to Iran. His lawyers presented the letter from the Venezuela government to the Iran government of June 3, 2020 notifying Iran of his arrival, and the June 8, 2020 from the Iranian government’s welcoming letter in response. Saab carried with him three official letters from the President and Vice-President of Venezuela to the leaders of Iran, all in diplomatic mail.

Saab’s lawyers presented evidence that Secretary of State at the time, Mike Pompeo, and Secretary of Defense Esper, had been apprised of Saab’s diplomatic status.

In response, the US prosecutors (a team of five) asked whether Saab was on a permanent or temporary special mission status. They claim temporary mission status is not recognized under US law, while permanent is. This difference was not explained.

The Saab defense presented four witnesses this first day in court. The first, Maria Gonzalez, of the Venezuela Foreign Ministry, processes diplomatic pouches and the credentialing of diplomats. She is an older woman, who began her job under the Presidency of Carlos Andres Perez in 1993. She stated no one in the Venezuela government talked to her about her testimony before the trial. At one point, when the prosecution asked her about the talks between “the Maduro regime and the Guaido government in Mexico,” she replied there is not and never has been a Guaido government in Venezuela.

When asked about why Saab’s appointment as a Special Envoy did not appear in the published text of the official Gaceta of Venezuela, she explained that such information does not normally appear there.

The prosecution referred to several official letters from Venezuelan government officials, including President Maduro and then Foreign Minister Arreaza, where Saab is not referred to as Special Envoy Alex Saab, as should have been the case, but as Venezuela Citizen Alex Saab. His defense  showed this to be frivolous, pointing out that later within each letter it was explained he had been appointed a Special Envoy with diplomatic immunity.

The second defense witness was the head of Alex Saab’s personal security. He again corroborated that Saab was carrying official diplomatic mail from the leaders of Venezuela to the leaders of Iran, and that he possessed a diplomatic passport. With both witnesses the prosecution may have successfully sown some doubts about their testimony.

The third defense witness was the Director of Legal Consulting for SAIME, which administers diplomatic passports. He recognized that Saab possessed a diplomatic passport with a duration of only one year (March 21, 2019 to March 22, 2020), which was actually expired when Saab was arrested June 12, 2020. It  was not renewed because the offices of SAIME were closed due to Covid-19, from March 2020 to March or April 2021. However, the judge in the case asked the Director if it was still possible to renew his diplomatic passport during that time period, and he said yes. The defense team did not respond to this information today. 

The fourth Saab defense witness was his first lawyer in Cape Verde, in July 2020. He had possessed the originals of the official Venezuela government letters to the leaders of Iran, including one from President Maduro to the Ayatollah Khamenei, Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran. The US also had copies these letters, which showed they had opened the diplomatic mail Saab was carrying (which is not permitted), and had been scanned on June 20, 2020. 

It was not brought up in this court, but not only did the US violate international law by having a diplomat arrested, but the US had simply gone to Cape Verde and seized him on October 16, 2021 and then threw him in prison in Miami.

The US government’s case that Saab is not a diplomat is extremely flimsy, if not outright absurd. However, the prosecution did find some openings which they could later use in their final arguments. And again, this trial is not taking place in a neutral court or  international court, but a US court, and the prosecution is backed by the power of the US empire, out to make Alex Saab pay for his skillfulness in circumventing the sanctions regime and blockade that the US has imposed on Venezuela.

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