The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) court on Monday ruled that the arrest and detention of a Venezuelan diplomat, Alex Saab, by Cape Verde was illegal.
It also said the diplomat should be released and be paid $200,000 for unlawful detention.
Mr Saab was arrested by the Cape Verdean authorities in June 2020 for alleged money laundering while on a humanitarian special mission to Iran.
Femi Falana, counsel to Mr Saab, had filed a suit at the ECOWAS court challenging the arbitrary arrest and detention of the Venezuelan diplomat.
He argued that as a diplomat, Mr Saab should have enjoyed diplomatic immunity and should not be subjected to imprisonment and legal proceedings by Cape Verde.
Mr Falana asked the ECOWAS court to order the release of the diplomat, allegedly detained based on a request by the United States Government.
But Cape Verde said the court had no jurisdiction to entertain the suit and that Mr Saab’s diplomatic immunity had expired at the time of his arrest.
But while delivering judgement on the matter, Justice Januaria Costa rejected the first and second claims, stating that Mr Saab could not claim diplomatic immunity as his papers had expired at the time of his arrest.
Also, the judge struck out the second claim on the basis that there are international conditions for being a special envoy.
However, on the third count, Ms Costa, whose ruling was interpreted by Justice Amaoko Asante, said Mr Saab was arrested on June 12, 2020, by the Cape Verdean police after being prompted by the United States Interpol.
She said the red alert was dated June 13, 2020 which showed that the arrest was unlawful as there was no warrant at the time of the arrest.
The ECOWAS court ruling
The ECOWAS court judge described Mr Saab’s arrest and subsequent detention as illegal and ordered Cape Verde to release him while halting all processes of extradition to the United States.
“We found that his arrest was arbitrarily done by the criminal police of Cape Verde” and his subsequent detention are “all illegal,” she added.
Mr Saab was awarded $200, 000 as compensation as against the $500, 000 demanded.
In his reaction, Mr Falana said he was happy with the ruling of the court.
“We commend the court for this judgment and we hope that the copies will be made available as soon as possible. We are happy with the judgment,” he said.
Mr Saab’s status as a diplomat has been brought to question after his arrest in June 2020 at the request of the United States of America for alleged financial crimes.
Recently, Mr Saab was held in the country’s prison against the ECOWAS court order that the diplomat is placed on house arrest until its main hearing on February 5, after three consecutive adjournments.
During the last hearing, Mr Falana had argued that, “when detained, Alex Saab was engaged in a humanitarian special mission to Iran. He had, and continues to have, the status of a Special Envoy of Venezuela.
“He therefore, enjoys diplomatic immunity and inviolability. Therefore, not only can he not be subjected to imprisonment and legal proceedings by Cape Verde, such actions also violate customary international law.
“On 24 December 2020, Alex Saab was appointed as Alternate Permanent Representative of Venezuela to the African Union. His immunity was thus reinforced, but it also demonstrated that he continues to command the full support of Venezuela as a diplomatic agent. No objections have been raised to Mr Saab’s appointment by the African Union,” Mr Falana said.
He added, “It is not a matter for Cape Verde (or any other country for that matter) to raise issues with whom Venezuela as a sovereign state appoints as its ambassador. Equally it is for Iran to determine if it recognises Mr Saab as a Special Envoy to Iran and not any third party.”
“Though Cape Verde has released Alex Saab into house arrest, it has only done so to give the impression of having complied with the ECOWAS Court 2 December decision.
“The reality is that Cape Verde has only partially grudgingly complied and the conditions of Mr Saab’s so-called house arrest are well short of accepted international standards and even below those Cape Verde itself has offered to drug traffickers in the past.”
The Counsel to Cape Verde, Henrique Borges, argued that the ECOWAS court lacked jurisdiction to hear the case.
“Cape Verde does not recognise the authority of the ECOWAS Court to decide this case as it has not signed and, consequently, not bound by the Additional Protocols of ECOWAS Court,” he said.
Mr Borges further claimed at the hearing that they had filed some additional documents (namely legal opinion(s)) but could not remember when they had done so when asked by the court.
Mr Saab was arrested on June 12, 2020 during a stopover at Amilcar Cabral International Airport on the Island of Sal by the Cape Verdean government. He was traveling to Venezuela from Iran.
His arrest by the Cape Verdean government was hinged on an international arrest warrant purportedly issued by Interpol at the request of the United States.
The Venezuelan authorities have continued to call for Mr Saab’s unconditional release, adding that he had diplomatic immunity at the time he was arrested.
The ECOWAS Court had in its December 20, 2020 ruling ordered the Republic of Cape Verde to place Mr Saab under permanent home detention in good conditions, including access to medical treatment and visits.
The court also ordered that the applicant should not be extradited pending the decision of the court on the substantive suit.
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