After two years of dedication, we are excited to officially announce the launch of the International People’s Tribunal on U.S. Imperialism: Sanctions, Blockades, and Economic Coercive Measures. This project is a first-ever international effort to build systems of accountability—rooted in global cross-movement solidarity—both within and outside of the law, to challenge the violence of imperialism through sanctions. With an impressive group of internationally renowned jurists from across the world, we interrogate sanctions not from the perspective of those who enforce them, but from the perspective of those most impacted by them, namely the peoples of Asia, Africa, and South America. This half-day event took place on January 28, 2023, at People’s Forum located at 320 W 37th St, New York, NY 10018, by an international coalition of over 30 organizations.
After Harry Dunn was killed by a car that emerged from a US base in Northamptonshire on 27 August 2019, the driver, Anne Sacoolas, claimed diplomatic immunity and within three weeks was whisked out of the country on a US military aircraft, with the British police only being informed after she’d left. Sacoolas eventually appeared by video at the Old Bailey last month, but is unlikely to serve the suspended sentence she received. The US government refused an extradition request to return her to the UK to face trial, even though her diplomatic immunity arose from a legal ‘anomaly’ that has now been closed. The State Department said that extraditing Sacoolas ‘would render the invocation of diplomatic immunity a practical nullity and would set an extraordinarily troubling precedent’. Yet last month the US denied immunity to the Venezuelan diplomat Alex Saab, charged with conspiring to launder $350 million via a bank in Florida.
The US is preventing Iranian energy projects from supplying oil to Lebanon, claimed Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, chief of Hezbollah, in a televised speech on Tuesday, January 17. This oil, he said, could have provided relief to millions of Lebanese suffering from lack of electricity and fuel. Speaking at the award ceremony of the Soleimani International Prize for Resistance Literature, Nasrallah noted that all of Lebanon is suffering from the energy crisis, “whose repercussions are affecting the economy and the people’s daily lives,” Al-Mayadeen reported. Nasrallah claimed that Hezbollah had initiated talks with Iran to get oil, as per decisions made by the government. Iran had agreed to provide oil to Lebanon, and while the “Iranian offer is still on the table,” the US is “preventing the offer from being carried out,” he said. Lebanon has been unable to import enough oil and gas as it faces an unprecedented economic crisis since 2019.
In his address at a conversation series on “Cuba in the Foreign Policy of the United States of America,” held on December 14 at the Higher Institute of International Relations in Havana, Fernández de Cossío took aim at the Biden administration’s enforcement of the blockade against Cuba, stating, “there can be no doubt that the economic blockade is the defining factor in the bilateral relations” between the United States and Cuba. Biden pledged during his 2020 presidential campaign that he would “try to reverse the failed Trump policies that inflicted harm on Cubans and their families.” In 2021, he claimed, “We stand with the Cuban people.”
And so it ended. Not with a bang, but with a whimper. After all, it was made of cardboard. It is very rare to have a political phenomenon beautifully encapsulated in a single moment or image. But in the case of (former) self-proclaimed “Interim President” Juan Guaidó, we got exactly that. On November 22, 2021, the Obama knockoff politician was giving a press conference in a fancy-looking set, with plenty of flags and a little podium. As he trudged along his nonsense something magical happened: the presidential shield behind him fell to the floor. It was made of cardboard. For all the absurdity that preceded and followed this episode, this will be Guaidó’s defining moment. Last week, his opposition allies finally had enough and decided to end the “interim government.”
On December 20, in the U.S. District Court of Southern Florida, Judge Robert N. Scola heard oral arguments on Alex Saab’s motion to dismiss the case against him. The factual issue for the Court to decide was “whether Mr. Saab was a special envoy from Venezuela to Iran traveling on a mission when he was detained in Cape Verde and extradited to the U.S. and, therefore, entitled to diplomatic immunity.” Dan was present for the hearing and will discuss, in detail, the hearing results. WTF has been following The Case of Alex Saab since his detainment on Cape Verde 12 June 2020. Today is our third update.
Saab Moran faces charges in this case for bribing Venezuelan officials channeling hundreds of millions of dollars into foreign accounts under the guise of a food program meant to benefit Venezuelans. His alleged criminal activity took place from 2011 through 2015. In an apparent effort to either avoid prosecution or reduce his criminal exposure in the United States, Saab Moran began to meet secretly with United States law enforcement agents starting in August 2016. Saab Moran met with agents in August and September of 2016. The following year, he met with agents in November of 2017. The next year, he met with the agents in June and July, 2018. In fact, on June 27, 2018, Saab Moran entered into a signed cooperation agreement with the Drug Enforcement Agency (“DEA”).
After day one and day two of the hearing, December 12-13, the case of Alex Saab’s diplomatic immunity wrapped up on the third day, December 20. Judge Robert Scola in the US District Court for the Southern District of Florida will make his decision by the end of this month. Saab’s defense explained that to determine whether Alex Saab is entitled to diplomatic immunity, the judge must answer three questions: “First, did the sending state, Venezuela, appoint Mr. Saab as a special envoy for the purpose of obtaining humanitarian aid in the form of food, medicine and oil? Second, did the receiving state, Iran, accept Mr. Saab as a special envoy? And third, was Mr. Saab in transit on the mission at the time of his detention and extradition?”
The Taliban seized power in Afghanistan in August 2021 and, in response, Europe, the United Arab Emirates and the United States froze the Afghan central bank’s roughly $9 billion in foreign assets — $7 billion of which was under control of the United States. Without access to these funds — alongside a lattice of sanctions, a decline in humanitarian aid and harsh political turmoil under Taliban rule — Afghanistan has been led into an economic collapse with a dramatic uptick in poverty; 6 million Afghans are facing the immediate risk of starvation. According to calculations from the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR), a left-leaning think tank, U.S. sanctions on Afghanistan (including the freezing of these central bank assets) could kill more people than 20 years of U.S. war and occupation.
This Friday, December 16, the US Senate unanimously approved the Law to Prohibit Operations and Leasing with the Illegitimate Authoritarian Regime of Venezuela (BOLIVAR Act), presented by the ultra-conservative Floridian senator, Rick Scott. The discussion of the interventionist act in the lower house of the US Congress is still pending. “The regulations prohibit federal agencies from doing business with anyone who supports the oppressive Maduro regime,” reported the official website of Scott, who was one of the primary promoters of the law. Scott was joined by far-right Senator Marco Rubio as well as other far-right congressmen. The bill had been unanimously approved by the US Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs in March 2021, as a preliminary step before being discussed in the Senate.
Authorities in Cape Verde, opened official government communications which Venezuela intended for Iran, including a sealed letter sent by Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, following the arrest of Venezuelan diplomat Alex Saab in June of 2020. The revelations came to light during a December 12 evidentiary hearing in Saab’s federal trial in Miami, Florida, focused on determining whether or not his claims to diplomatic immunity are legitimate. The Grayzone is attending Saab’s trial in the Wilke Ferguson federal courthouse in downtown Miami. The US Department of Justice has accused the Venezuelan diplomat of conspiracy to commit money laundering, painting him as a corrupt business asset of a socialist government Washington aims to topple. But Saab and his only crime was violating sanctions to provide affordable food and medicine for a population suffering under a crushing US economic blockade. Saab’s trial is therefore a critical test of the legitimacy of the US sanctions regime targeting nations from Venezuela to Iran.
Since the end of the Cold War, the world has witnessed an unprecedented proliferation of sanctions regimes, particularly by the United Nations Security Council, the European Union, and the United States. This is due in part to the collapse of the Soviet Union, which ended the deadlock between superpowers at the Security Council. Over the past few decades, sanctions were slowly reconfigured from war time weapons into peacetime policy instruments. In order for this effort to materialize, policymakers, legal scholars, and government officials campaigned to legitimate sanctions as a lawful weapon to punish nations who refuse to submit to the United States and Europe. A rich body of literature investigates the use of multilateral coercive measures by the Security Council, and the bilateral and unilateral measures exercised by regional and state actors.
On Tuesday, December 13, the second day of the hearing (see first day here), the prosecution presented its case why the US rejects Saab’s status as a diplomat. The prosecution presentation initially focused on Saab being a “cooperative source” for the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) between 2016-2019, meeting with DEA agents several times. The prosecutor asserted that Saab explained to the DEA how he conducted business, how he paid off Venezuelan government officials, and that he paid the DEA millions of dollars. The Saab defense did not respond to this, an issue that is entirely out of the domain of this hearing. The corporate media has covered this in the past (here and here).
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.
Starting December 12, an evidentiary hearing before the US Southern District Court of Florida is considering a case of historic importance. Is the US above international law? Can international conventions on diplomatic immunity be violated by US courts and prosecutors? The fate of Alex Saab, a special envoy of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela is being contested, but larger questions that could affect the lives of diplomats around the world will be decided. Most prisoners with a get-out-of-jail-free card would have played it, but not Alex Saab. The Venezuelan diplomat has been incarcerated for two and a half years. On June 12, 2020, Alex Saab was on a mission from Caracas to Tehran to procure supplies of food, fuel, and medicine denied the Venezuelans by sanctions imposed by the US.