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. In another contrast with the Sacoolas case, Saab was only in the US, where the alleged crime was committed, because he had been extradited by force.
Saab was arrested in Cape Verde on 12 June 2020, during a refuelling stop on a flight from Venezuela to Iran. Both countries are subject to US sanctions, and Saab’s mission, his third to Iran, was to arrange the supply of food and medical supplies, paid for in gold. His plane was obliged to land in Cape Verde having been denied refuelling in Morocco and Senegal, possibly at Washington’s request. Police forcibly removed him from the plane, knocking out two of his teeth; an arrest warrant was issued the following day. He was extradited in October 2021, even though Cape Verde has no extradition treaty with the US, and ignored rulings by the West African regional court and the United Nations Human Rights Committee that Saab should be released.
In Florida, awaiting trial, Saab pushed his argument that he held diplomatic immunity and was carrying letters in diplomatic pouches from Venezuela’s president, Nicolás Maduro, to his Iranian counterpart. According to the National Lawyers Guild International Committee, Saab’s diplomatic status was clear. On 23 December 2022, however, a judge in Miami ruled that he didn’t have diplomatic immunity because the US has not recognised ‘the Maduro regime’ as the official government of Venezuela since January 2019, and ‘only the president may determine which governments are legitimate in the eyes of the United States and which are not.’
Dan Kovalik, an international lawyer who has advised on the case and was present at December’s hearing in Miami, told me that Saab’s diplomatic status derives from 2018, when Maduro’s presidency was still recognised by Washington. Saab’s diplomatic passport was issued by the same Foreign Ministry that issued the one held by Juan Guaidó, the man claimed by Washington to be the country’s real president, even though he has never won an election. (At the end of December, the Venezuelan opposition groups that had previously supported Guaidó announced the dissolution of his ‘interim government’.)
Diplomatic immunity has a very long history but in its modern form was codified by the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations. Unlike the International Criminal Court and countless other international treaties, the US formally adheres to the 1961 Vienna Convention, but the Sacoolas and Saab cases show Washington will make up its own mind how the convention applies, regardless of the consequences for its relations with other governments. As Mike Pompeo puts it in his new book, Never Give an Inch: ‘No other nation has the global reach to interrupt an Iranian-Venezuelan plot in real time and convince a small island nation to hold a wanted man.’