June 4, 2021, Sal Island, Cabo Verde. In their first full day in Cabo Verde, the emergency human rights delegation met with Saab’s lawyer and the Venezuelan ambassador, tried to meet with the local police commander, and saw first hand the prison-house where Mr. Saab is jailed, though the heavily armed guards prevented a visit.
A year ago, immediately after Alex Saab’s plane was diverted to Cabo Verde for a technical fueling stop and he was forcibly taken off the plane, the Venezuelan government notified the Cabo Verdean authorities that Saab was a diplomat and thus protected from detention, according to Jose Manuel Pinto Monteiro. Dr. Pinto is a Cabo Verdean lawyer, who has moved to Sal Island in the archipelago where Saab is imprisoned to work on his behalf.
Since, Cabo Verdean authorities have ignored political prisoner Alex Saab’s diplomatic immunity, and his basic human rights have been denied.
Dr. Pinto described the torturous conditions that Saab has been subjected to: a bag was put over his head on the first day of detention; he was held in isolation in a dark cell with no light for 23 hours a day for seven months; the concrete-floored cell had no furniture.
Worse, according to attorney Pinto’s subsequent meetings with Saab, Saab was repeatedly threatened with his life. On three occasions, Saab was physically assaulted by agents in the prison, one of whom he described as having an American accent. They tried unsuccessfully to get Saab to agree to his extradition to the US.
We also met with Venezuelan Ambassador Alejandro Correa Ortega, who was the first person to gain access from the Cabo Verdean authorities to see Saab. Ambassador Correa has also moved to Sal to be able to see Saab. Currently he is allowed visitation for only one hour, three times a week. And even that took months to negotiate with Ambassador Correa’s diplomatic prerogatives under international law violated.
Eventually, attorney Pinto fought for and also won permission to visit Saab. But Saab, who has cancer, has had his oncologist denied entry into the Cabo Verde. Saab’s personal attorney from Colombia was likewise denied entry. And a team of attorneys from the UK landed in Cabo Verde to see Saab, but were met by forty police at the airport and sent back.
We suspect that our delegation was allowed to enter Cabo Verde, because we have US passports. Certainly our presence is known, because local TV and radio media have sort us out and interviewed us today.
After Saab’s case was taken to the regional ECOWAS court, which ordered Saab’s immediate release, Saab was placed under “house arrest.” The Cabo Verdean authorities, under the fiction that Saab is no longer formally in prison, denied a habeas corpus request. However, we learned firsthand that Saab is still imprisoned, though no longer under the earlier wretched conditions.
The emergency delegation got as far as a half a block from the house arrest site, when we stopped. Police, heavily armed with automatic weapons and some wearing black masks, turned us away while similarly clad and armed snipers watched down on us from neighboring rooftops.
Although the site is in a “resort” neighborhood, Saab is sealed in a concrete block edifice with only the most limited visitation rights. After much adjudication, his sister and brother-in-law now have very restricted visitation rights. Otherwise, Saab is still imprisoned and prevented from even having Internet access.
For now, the Saab case is being litigated in the Cape Verdean Supreme Court, so he cannot be immediately extradited. But time is quickly running out. Unless there is international pressure on both the US and Cape Verdean governments, Saab will be railroaded to the US to face charges. His only “crime” was trying to buy needed food, medicine, and fuel oil for the people of Venezuela who are being asphyxiated by illegal US sanctions.
Featured image: Part of the Delegation visiting a police station looking for chief of police Natalino Correa. Photo courtesy of International #FreeAlexSaab Solidarity Committee.
(International #FreeAlexSaab Solidarity Committee) by Roger D. Harris, Task Force on the Americas