US trial of Venezuela’s Alex Saab exposes diplomatic espionage

Reporting from inside the federal courtroom where the US is prosecuting Venezuelan diplomat Alex Saab, The Grayzone learns of disturbing acts of diplomatic espionage. Saab’s advocates insist he is imprisoned for violating Washington’s economic blockade.

An anonymous actor 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 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 advocates insist 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.

On Monday, Cape Verdean lawyer Dr. Florian Mandl testified that when he obtained Saab’s belongings in July of 2020, he discovered that three separate communications his client had been tasked with delivering to Iranian government officials on behalf of the Venezuelan President’s and Vice President’s offices had been opened by an unknown culprit. The documents consisted of a letter from President Maduro addressed to Ayatollah Khamenei as well as two letters from Venezuela’s Vice President Delcy Rodríguez: one addressed to an advisor to her Iranian counterpart, and another addressed to Iran’s then-Minister of Agriculture Kazem Khavazi.

According to Mandl, Cape Verdean law requires authorities to ask prisoners to designate a contact to pick up their belongings immediately after their detention. Yet he asserted that no one ever bothered to ask Saab for such a contact following the diplomat’s arrest on June 12, 2020, and said he only obtained Saab’s luggage after he launched a personal campaign to recover his client’s possessions on July 21 of that year. Even so, Cape Verdean authorities did not hand over Saab’s belongings until July 22.

Mandl said he opened Saab’s suitcases after taking them home later that same day. He described the contents inside as highly “disorganized” and recalled finding three envelopes marked with Venezuelan government seals scattered amongst Saab’s clothing. Mandl expressed shock when recalling the moment he realized the envelopes had already been opened, particularly when he discovered one of the documents was a heartfelt letter President Maduro had written to Iran’s Supreme Leader.

Prior to Mandl’s testimony, Saab’s private security guard, Juan Carlos Arrieche, testified that President Maduro asked him to personally deliver the documents to Saab on the night of June 11, 2020. Saab attended a meeting with Iranian diplomats at the Venezuelan President’s residence, Miraflores Palace, that same evening. Saab set out for Iran the following day, but was intercepted by police when his plane stopped to refuel on the Cape Verdean island of Sal that afternoon.

Arrieche recalled that the diplomatic communications were stored in Saab’s personal carry-on briefcase when he boarded a chartered flight to Tehran on the morning of June 12, and that the envelopes were still sealed at that time.

In his letter to Ayatollah Khamenei, Maduro thanked Iran for delivering light crude and petroleum-industry related chemicals to Venezuela throughout May of 2020. The shipments, which were the result of a deal Saab brokered with Iran to help end a months-long oil crisis in Venezuela, enabled Caracas to double its oil output the following year, flouting the US sanctions regime intended to deny it of revenue. Venezuela paid for the Iranian petrol products with gold.

Read the complete correspondence between Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei here.

Additionally, Maduro requested Ayatollah Khamenei’s “support to specify the monthly and periodic shipment of gasoline to Venezuela for a year.”

“I am writing to you in the name of God, the Merciful, on behalf of the people of Venezuela and the Government that honors me preside, to thank you from the deepest soul of this Earth, for the support you have bravely and resolutely given to Venezuela, upholding international law and laying bare empires made of paper,” Maduro wrote.

In her own messages, Venezuelan Vice President Delcy Rodríguez thanked Iranian officials for their solidarity “in the face of all imperial aggressions from the United States and its allies.” In one of the documents in question, she extended a formal invitation to Sadegh Kharazi, an advisor to Iran’s Vice President, to visit Venezuela and “finally consolidate the co-operational relations and friendship between both of our nations.”

“I say goodbye to you, deeply grateful for your attention and reiterating our willingness to work together for the consolidation of the principles of a multi-centric and multipolar world,” she concluded.

Read the full correspondence between Venezuelan Vice President Delcy Rodriguez and Senior Advisor to the Vice President of Iran Sadegh Kharazi here.

As a result of Saab’s detention, neither message ever reached their intended recipient — though apparently someone in Praia obtained the envelopes and read their internal communiques.

Cape Verde extradited Saab to the United States, where he now faces a money laundering charge, on October 16, 2021. Saab’s lawyers have requested US District Judge Robert Scola dismiss the case against their client on the grounds that his diplomatic status makes him immune from prosecution. Venezuela officially appointed Saab as a Special Envoy of its government in April of 2018.

Hearings on Saab’s diplomatic status are scheduled to conclude on Thursday, December 15. Judge Scola is expected to make a decision as to whether or not the case against him will proceed on December 20.