by Stansfiield Smith, published on The Grayzone, April 27, 2021
In violation of international law, the US is seeking to extradite and imprison foreign business people for circumventing its unilateral sanctions. Washington’s targets include Venezuelan national Alex Saab, North Korean Mun Chol Myong, and Chinese Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou.
The United States uses economic sanctions as a weapon against states that choose a development path independent of US global domination. Sanctions can take the form of blocking a nation’s financial and trade transactions, not allowing financial institutions to process them. The US can also freeze the assets of another country.
Washington employs sanctions as a tool to destabilize governments that refuse to kow-tow to it. Sanctions are a weapon of war on civilians. Richard Nixon made this clear when, with Chile’s 1970 election of socialist Salvador Allende, the US president ordered the CIA to “make the economy scream,” to “prevent Allende from coming to power or to unseat him.”
Sanctions can destroy the economy of a country by causing hyperinflation and unemployment and preventing the import of necessities such as food, medicine, and equipment to keep infrastructure and industries running. Sanctions drive capital flight from targeted nations, as corporations and financial institutions seek to avoid being hurt themselves. This results in deadly consequences for the civilian population.
According to the United Nations, US sanctions are unilateral coercive measures that violate international laws. The UN General Assembly has repeatedly called on all states not to recognize or apply unilateral coercive measures, such as those employed by the US. Every year since 1992 it has condemned the US blockade of Cuba; Washington’s response has been to worsen it. The 120 member Non-Aligned Movement has condemned sanctions on Venezuela.
This global influence enables the United States to block money transfers for even the smallest transaction, and to confiscate billions of dollars held by targeted governments and individuals. By controlling the international financial system, Washington can demand that banks in foreign countries accept US restrictions, or face sanctions themselves.
According to the United Nations, however, US sanctions are unilateral coercive measures that violate international laws. The UN Charter – which the US was itself instrumental in writing – clearly states only those sanctions imposed by the UN Security Council can be considered legal. Sanctions imposed by one country on another are not legal.
The UN General Assembly has repeatedly called on member states not to recognize or apply unilateral coercive measures, such as those employed by Washington.
Yet the US government continues to freely snub the UN and its Security Council by imposing unilateral sanctions on a variety of countries, most severely against Iran, Syria, Cuba, North Korea, Sudan, and Venezuela.
US sanctions contributed to 40,000 deaths in Venezuela just between 2017 and 2018, as well as to the deaths of 4,000 North Koreans in 2018, most of them children and pregnant women. In the 1990s, sanctions against Iraq led to the deaths of as many as 880,000 children under five due to malnutrition and disease.
Washington even brazenly threatened to sanction judges of the International Criminal Court if they dared investigate US war crimes in Afghanistan. National Security Advisor John Bolton bullied them, stating: “We will ban its judges and prosecutors from entering the United States. We will sanction their funds in the U.S. financial system, and we will prosecute them in the U.S. criminal system … We will do the same for any company or state that assists an ICC investigation of Americans.”
This turned out to be no idle threat: the Trump administration ultimately slapped sanctions on the ICC and its staff.
In 2020 and 2021, the US government has taken its unilateral coercive measures to an even more ominous level by charging and attempting to extradite foreign business people who have been abiding by international law, rather than the economic dictates of Washington.
Alex Saab, a Venezuelan national; Mun Chol Myong, a North Korean businessman; and Meng Wanzhou, from China’s Huawei tech giant, have each been charged with violating Washington’s unlawful sanctions – even though all are non-US citizens living and conducting business outside of the United States. The three are being politically persecuted for acting in the interests of their own countries, and not the US.
The case of Venezuelan special envoy Alex Saab
The Obama administration justified unilateral sanctions against Venezuela in 2015 with the baseless claim that Venezuela poses “an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security” of the United States. As Reuters noted at the time, “Declaring any country a threat to national security is the first step in starting a US sanctions program.”
Alex Saab, a Colombia-born Venezuelan businessman, was appointed a special envoy of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela. His job was to help the government buy food for its social program, CLAP, which provides boxes of food and sanitary supplies to an estimated 80 percent of the population, helping keep them alive under the US economic attack.
Saab’s government role means he should have diplomatic immunity under international law. But Washington has ignored all international protocol in targeting him.
Saab was en route to Iran to acquire basic food, medicine, and medical equipment needed for the people of Venezuela when, on June 12, 2020, he was detained – in effect kidnapped – during a stopover in Cape Verde, due to a US government extradition request.
Since then, Saab has been detained, first in prison and now under house arrest. He says his “illegal detention is entirely politically motivated.”
The US government charged Saab with “money laundering.” However, in his case and those of the other two foreign nationals targeted by the US, money laundering means nothing more than making international trade transactions, which must generally go through the US-controlled SWIFT financial system through which all dollar transactions pass, that circumvent Washington’s unilateral sanctions.
Because of its control over the international financial system, the United States can impose sanctions on the trade any country undertakes with nations that Washington sanctions or blockades, such as Cuba, Venezuela, Iran, Nicaragua, or Russia. ”Money laundering” is the charge that Washington uses to enforce its unilateral coercive measures on the rest of the world.
Saab explained in an April interview with a Colombian news outlet,
“I have worked since 2015 to ensure the supply of basic food and medicine and other items to supply the [Venezuelan] government’s social welfare food program (CLAP). Since April 2018 I have been working as a servant of the state, as a special envoy and not as a private businessman.”
“For seven months … from the first day of my abduction, they tortured me and pressured me to sign voluntary extradition declarations and bear false witness against my government,”
Saab recounted. He refused, stating
“President Maduro has shown incredible leadership in the face of unprecedented sanctions and dirty political tricks from the US. I am honored to be able to assist President Maduro in any way I can, as he seeks to ensure the well-being of the people of Venezuela.”
In jail, Saab said he was kept in the dark for 23 hours a day, “lying on the concrete [floor].” This led him to partially lose his eyesight.
“I was forbidden to speak to anyone inside the prison, and everyone else was forbidden to speak to me,” Saab added. “I have lost 25 kilos [55 pounds].”
Switzerland investigated Saab over allegations of money laundering through Swiss banks. But, after a two-year investigation, Swiss courts formally closed their investigation on March 25, 2021, determining there was no evidence that Saab committed any irregularity.
Soon after the Swiss statement, the US Treasury Department on March 31 withdrew the sanctions that President Trump had issued on a group of companies allegedly linked to Alex Saab.
While Cape Verdean authorities approved Saab’s extradition to the US, the court of justice of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) declared his detention illegal, stipulating that he could not be extradited.
The African Bar Association also ruled that the Venezuelan diplomatic envoy should not be incarcerated. Nevertheless, the US government, continuing the Trump administration’s policy under President Joe Biden, has demanded that Cape Verde keep Saab under house arrest, pending extradition.
The case of North Korean businessman Mun Chol Myong
For the first time in history, a North Korean businessman was extradited to the United States from Malaysia on March 20, 2021. Mun Chol Myong faces charges of “money laundering,” “conspiracy,” and supplying goods to North Korea in violation of US law.
Mun was arrested in Malaysia in May 2019 shortly after a Washington, DC federal judge issued a warrant for his arrest. He spent nearly two years fighting extradition, arguing that his case was politically motivated and was being used as leverage in possible nuclear negotiations between the US and North Korea.
His actual crime, in the eyes of the US government, was supplying needed goods to North Korea in a manner that circumvented Washington’s sanctions and US-instigated UN sanctions. US government authorities, as of March 22, 2021, had not indicated what goods Mun is said to have exported to North Korea.
An indictment by the US District Court for the District of Columbia alleges that Mun and his unnamed “co-conspirators” used “front” companies and bank accounts registered to false names on behalf of North Korean entities that were barred from SWIFT. According to the FBI, by concealing transactions that benefited North Korea, Mun deceived US financial institutions into processing more than $1.5 million in transactions which they would have otherwise not processed.
The US assistant attorney general for the Justice Department’s National Security Division, John C. Demers, claimed Mun “is the first North Korean intelligence operative – and the second ever foreign intelligence operative – to have been extradited to the United States for violation of our laws.” Ignoring international law, Washington considers North Korean diplomats and international business people to be “intelligence operatives.”
In other words, the US Justice Department is openly arguing that foreign nationals who have never been to or done work in the United States can be extradited there for violating “our laws.”
Demers went on to baselessly claim that Mun’s export of goods to North Korea was a national security threat to the American people, insisting, “We will continue to use the long reach of our laws to protect the American people from sanctions evasion and other national security threats.”
In the Justice Department’s press release, the assistant director of the FBI’s Counterintelligence Division, Alan E. Kohler Jr., added ominously, ”We hope he will be the first of many.”
The US government has enforced sanctions, amounting to a de facto blockade, against North Korea since 1950, at the start of the US war on Korea. These sanctions have been designed to cut the country off from international trade and cripple its economic and social development.
The United States claims present-day sanctions were enacted because of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, which is a legal program run by a country threatened by Washington’s own nuclear weapons.
North Korea’s charge d’affaires in Malaysia, Kim Yu Song, condemned Mun’s extradition as an “unpardonable crime,” declaring that it was the product of a US-led sanction program “which seeks to deprive our state of its sovereignty, peaceful existence and development,” and is “isolating and suffocating” the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK).
The DPRK protested the extradition of its citizen by suspending official diplomatic ties with Malaysia.
The case of Chinese Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou
The most infamous of these three extradition cases is that of Meng Wanzhou, chief financial officer and deputy chair of the board of the Chinese tech giant Huawei.
Meng faces charges of fraud for allegedly misleading HSBC, a British bank, about Huawei business dealings in Iran, causing the bank to break unilateral US sanctions against Iran.
On August 22, 2018, a US District Court in New York issued an arrest warrant for Meng. Canada’s RCMP then arrested her in Vancouver on December 1, 2018, at US request.
Meng has now been under house arrest for almost two and half years. The Chinese government has said the detention is “lawless, reasonless and ruthless, and it is extremely vicious.”
Washington imposed sanctions on Iran shortly after its 1979 revolution. The present US sanctions are claimed to be in response to Iran’s nuclear weapons program, even though there is no proof that the country has been developing nuclear weapons.
As with the North Korean case, it is noteworthy that the only country that has actually used nuclear weapons on a civilian population sanctions other countries for supposedly developing them.
All UN-approved coercive measures against Iran were ended with the international nuclear agreement, or JCPOA, of 2015, and the International Atomic Energy Agency confirmed that Tehran was in compliance with the deal.
Unilateral US sanctions on Iran were imposed without any legal basis, and Washington’s justification for extraditing Meng thus violates international law, because the sanctions that the Huawei executive is alleged to have circumvented are illegal according to the UN Security Council.
In an article explaining the Meng Wanzhou extradition case, political analyst K J Noh provided further context:
Most people understand that Meng is not guilty of anything other than being the daughter of Ren Zeng Fei, the founder of Huawei.
Huawei, as a global technological powerhouse, represents Chinese power and Chinese technical prowess, which the United States is hell-bent on destroying. Meng has been kidnapped as a pawn, as a hostage to exert pressure on Huawei and the Chinese government, and to curb China’s development.
In a maneuver reminiscent of medieval or colonial warfare, the US has explicitly offered to release her if China capitulates on a trade deal –– making clear that she is being held hostage. This constitutes a violation of the UN Convention on Hostages.
In court, Meng’s defense has argued that the US government deliberately misstated evidence and withheld evidence from the Canadian Court. Her attorneys say the Trump administration was using her as a “bargaining chip.”
Meng’s defense denied Washington’s jurisdiction to indict a Chinese national for her activities outside of US soil. “There is no connection … None of [Meng’s] alleged conduct occurred either in whole or in part in the United States. Nor did they have any effect there,” her lawyers stated.
It is also highly unusual for Washington to pursue criminal charges for sanctions violations against an individual rather than an institution. Where an executive is carrying out corporate policy, one would expect individuals not to be charged, rather, the corporation would be fined.
As economist Jeffrey Sachs noted:
In 2011, for example, JP Morgan Chase paid $88.3 million in fines in 2011 for violating US sanctions against Cuba, Iran, and Sudan. Yet Jamie Dimon wasn’t grabbed off a plane and whisked into custody.
And JP Morgan Chase was hardly alone in violating US sanctions. Since 2010, the following major financial institutions paid fines for violating US sanctions: Banco do Brasil, Bank of America, Bank of Guam, Bank of Moscow, Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi, Barclays, BNP Paribas, Clearstream Banking, Commerzbank, Compass, Crédit Agricole, Deutsche Bank, HSBC, ING, Intesa Sanpaolo, JP Morgan Chase, National Bank of Abu Dhabi, National Bank of Pakistan, PayPal, RBS (ABN Amro), Société Générale, Toronto-Dominion Bank, Trans-Pacific National Bank (now known as Beacon Business Bank), Standard Chartered, and Wells Fargo.
None of the CEOs or CFOs of these sanction-busting banks was arrested and taken into custody for these violations. In all of these cases, the corporation – rather than an individual manager – was held accountable.
These are political cases, disguised as criminal cases. The “crime” is the violation of US sanctions – illegal according to the United Nations – by non-US citizens living outside the United States.
The US government is flaunting international law by charging these three individuals for legal business between nations that violates illegal US coercive measures. All three represent the interests of governments that Washington seeks to crush, and the detentions of all three is the equivalent of hostage taking.
These cases open the door for the United States to charge and extradite any person in the world on baseless allegations of “organized crime, money laundering, or financing of terrorism,” if they engage in perfectly legal international trade which the US government declares to violate its unilateral sanctions.
Stansfield Smith, Chicago ALBA Solidarity, is a long time Latin America solidarity activist, and presently puts out the AFGJ Venezuela Weekly. He is also the Senior Research Fellow at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs