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The Holes in Interpol – The Case of Alex Saab

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

Visitors to Caracas will be greeted across the Venezuelan capital city with posters and casual graffiti proclaiming the need to free Alex Saab, a Venezuelan government special envoy extradited to the United States in 2021.  While Saab’s case has attracted some attention outside of Venezuela, specifically in the context of American-Venezuelan relations, little has been written about the extensive role that Interpol played in the case. 


The world’s international police organization, in fact, has become an unlikely geopolitical tool used to enable, for example, the Uyghur genocide and more broadly undermine the global order as we would like to see it.  INTERPOL is considered one of the most prestigious and oldest “global” organizations, having been founded in 1923.  At the heart of the workings of Interpol is a traffic light system of notices that are used by law enforcement around the world to indicate the level of a threat or concern that a particular individual poses. The most feared of these being the “Red Notice,” publication of which leads to police forces around the world agreeing to arrest each other’s fugitives. 

Russia is responsible for 38% of all Red Notices, while the U.S. is responsible for 4.3% and China 5%.  As testimony in the British House of Lords last month made clear, China’s use of INTERPOL Red Notices is growing quickly.  Specifically, China is using the mechanism to get other nations to arrest Uyghurs who flee China’s concentration camps and are often prosecuted on made up charges.     

While Russia and China are responsible for their own share of Red Notice violations, the case of Alex Saab is an example of American abuse of the INTERPOL system.  Saab, a lawfully appointed Venezuelan Special Envoy, was arrested in Cape Verde in June 2020 while undertaking a special mission to Iran. He was wanted by U.S. authorities because of alleged money laundering related to a housing program in Venezuela.  In reality, Saab was a Venezuelan diplomat on a humanitarian mission at the peak of the COVID pandemic, whom the U.S. wanted to obtain as a political pawn for other purposes.


The case has a number of irregularities because Saab was on a diplomatic mission recognized by his government, Venezuela, as well as the “receiving” country of the mission, Iran.  A former INTERPOL legal director believes Saab was detained unjustly. One clear problem with the case is that the INTERPOL warrant for Saab’s detention arrived after he had already been denied his liberty as a result of being refused permission to take off from Cape Verde, where his plane had stopped to refuel, on its way to Iran. 

Here are the details.  Refueling complete, instead of Saab’s aircraft receiving clearance to take off, the plane was boarded by several national policemen.  The head of the Cape Verdean force showed on his mobile phone what he claimed was an INTERPOL Red Notice for Saab’s arrest. A close look at the Red Notice, allegedly issued at the request of the U.S. against Saab, two elements stand out.  First, the date of the Red Notice is June 13, 2020.  That is, the day after Saab’s arrest and, second, in the Red Notice section asking: "Copy of arrest warrant available at the General Secretariat in the language used by the requesting country?” the response is “No.”

As such, the Red Notice was issued in breach of Articles 75(d) and 83(2) (b) (v) of INTERPOL’s Rules on the Processing of Data, which requires “…a valid arrest warrant or judicial decision having the same effect…”


Interestingly, under U.S. law, the Miami Indictment issued against Saab in 2019 on allegations of money laundering does not form sufficient basis for an arrest in the U.S.  Indeed, the procedure would require a separate judicial decision to validate the arrest. The Red Notice, therefore, was not only issued illegally by INTERPOL at the request of the U.S; it was also illegal because it supported the apprehension of an internationally protected person.

Saab challenged his detention at the hands of Cape Verde in an international court of law. In this case, that was the Court of Justice of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), which on March 15, 2021 declared the U.S. extradition proceedings against Saab in Cape Verde as illegal.  A second ECOWAS ruling also found Saab’s extradition to be illegal. The question is not Saab’s guilt, but the importance of maintaining international diplomatic order. The flagrant disregard for Saab’s diplomatic rights as a Venezuelan government special envoy certainly weakens the diplomatic order.  A Red Notice was the tool used in Saab’s case to further weaken that order because it was quoted by the Cape Verdean authorities as being the sole basis of their arrest of Alex Saab.                  


While China abuses the INTERPOL system to continue its Uyghur suppression policy, the United States has also used INTERPOL to benefit from political bargaining chips serving its interests at the expense of others.  The notorious Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout was traded for the American WNBA Star Britney Grainer last year.  Bout was a well-known arms dealer who was acquired through an INTERPOL procedure in Thailand in 2004.  A similar fate is likely now set for Alex Saab, who will be exchanged by the U.S. for an American prisoner or prisoners held by Venezuela.  Viktor Bout was portrayed sympathetically by Nicholas Cage in the movie “Lord of War.”  The film ends with the American actor being freed by his captors.  Maybe Saab’s own story will have a Hollywood ending.

Saman Rizwan is an analyst and frequently writes on politics, gender and the environment. She has a Masters in International Relations from S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, NTU, Singapore.  As a journalist, Ms. Rizwan has written about international politics, technology, human rights and gender-based violence, and she has published in first tier media outlets including Forbes, Newsweek, The Nation, South China Morning Post and The Diplomat.  Ms. Rizwan has reported from the UK, South East Asia and Saudi Arabia.  She is a former researcher at the Centre for Strategic and Contemporary Research, and lives and works in the UK. 


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