top of page

The US Plan to Imprison Businesspeople in Other Countries for “Violating” Illegal US Sanctions

The Cases of Alex Saab, Meng Wanzhou, Mun Chol Myong

By Stansfield Smith | May 31, 2021 | Originally published in Orinoco Tribune

The US uses economic sanctions as a weapon against states which 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.

The US uses sanctions as a tool to overthrow governments that do not kow-tow to it. Sanctions are a weapon of war on civilians. They destroy the economy of a country (“make the economy scream”) by causing hyperinflation, unemployment, preventing the import of necessities such as food, medicine, and equipment to keep infrastructure and industries running. They drive capital flight from countries as corporations and financial institutions seek to distance themselves and avoid being targeted themselves. These result in deadly consequences for the civilian population.

US sanctions have both a world reach and crippling effect because most trade and currency exchange between countries takes place with US dollars and the allied euro. Since the dollar is the world reserve currency, financial and trade transactions typically go through the US banking system. This enables the US to block money transfers for the smallest transaction and to confiscate billions of dollars held by targeted governments and individuals. By controlling the international financial system, Washington can demand banks in foreign countries accept US restrictions or face sanctions themselves.

However, 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.

Despite this, the US continues to freely flaunt the UN by imposing these unilateral sanctions on a variety of countries, the most severe being against Iran, Syria, Cuba, North Korea, and Venezuela. US sanctions contributed to 40,000 deaths in Venezuela just between 2017 and 2018, and to the deaths of 4,000 North Koreans in 2018, most of them children and pregnant women. In the early 1990s, US sanctions against Iraq led to the deaths of as many as 880,000 children under five due to malnutrition and disease.

The US even brazenly threatened to sanction judges of the International Criminal Court if they dare investigate US war crimes in Afghanistan. National Security Advisor John Bolton bullied them: “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 US recently has recently taken its unilateral coercive measures to an even more ominous level by charging and attempting to extradite foreign businesspeople who have been abiding by international law rather than these US coercive measures. The cases of Alex Saab, a Venezuelan, and Meng Wanzhou from China’s Huawei tech giant and Mun Chol Myong from North Korea are each charged with violating US sanctions even though all are non-US citizens living outside the US, conducting business outside the US. All 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 began unilateral sanctions against Venezuela in 2015 with the utterly baseless claim that Venezuela poses “an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security” of the US. As Reuters noted at the time, “Declaring any country a threat to national security is the first step in starting a US sanctions program.”

Saab, a Venezuelan businessman, is a special envoy of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, holding diplomatic immunity. He was on route to Iran to acquire basic food, medicine and medical equipment much needed for the people of Venezuela. He was detained, in effect kidnapped, in Cape Verde on June 12, 2020 during a stopover, and has been held since that time, first in prison and now under house arrest. Saab points out that his “illegal detention is entirely politically motivated.”

The US charged Saab with money laundering. “Money laundering” in this and the two other cases, means nothing more than making international trade transactions, which must generally pass through the US controlled SWIFT financial system which processes all dollar transactions. In this way, the US can impose its unilateral sanctions on the trade any country undertakes with nations the US sanctions or blockades, such as Cuba, Venezuela, Iran, Nicaragua, or Russia. ”Money laundering” is the charge or threat the US uses to enforce its unilateral coercive measures on the rest of the world.

Saab explained, “I have worked since 2015 to ensure the supply of basic food and medicine and other items to supply the 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.” In other words, he was arrested for not adhering to US sanctions on his people in his missions of buying food for the Venezuelan people suffering under these sanctions.

Saab said in a recent interview, “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.” 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 he was kept in the dark for 23 hours a day, “lying on the concrete [floor].” He partially lost his eyesight. “I was forbidden to speak to anyone inside the prison, and everyone else was forbidden to speak to me… I have lost 25 kilos [55 pounds].”

On March 25, 2021, courts in Switzerland, determining there was no evidence that Saab committed any irregularity, formally closed its two-year investigation against him for money laundering through Swiss banks. Soon after the Swiss statement, on March 31, the US Treasury Department withdrew the sanctions that President Trump had issued on a group of companies allegedly linked to Alex Saab.

While the Cape Verdean authorities approved his extradition to the US, the court of justice of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), declared his detention illegal and therefore he could not be extradited. African Bar Association likewise ruled that the diplomatic envoy should not be incarcerated. Nevertheless, the US under President Biden demands Cape Verde keep Saab under house arrest pending extradition.

The case of North Korean businessman Mun Chol Myong

For the first time in history, on March 20, 2021 a North Korean businessman Mun Chol Myong was extradited to the United States from Malaysia to face 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, pointing out that the case was politically motivated, used as leverage in possible nuclear negotiations between the US and North Korea.

His actual “crime,” in the eyes of the US rulers, was supplying needed goods to North Korea in a manner that circumvented the US sanctions and US instigated UN sanctions. The US authorities, as of March 22, 2021, have not indicated what goods he is said to have exported to North Korea.

According to an indictment by the US District Court for the District of Columbia, 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. The FBI claims that by concealing that their transactions were for the benefit of North Korea, Mun deceived US financial institutions into processing more than $1.5 million in transactions which they would have otherwise not processed.

John Demers, the assistant attorney general for the Justice Department’s National Security Division commented, “He is the first North Korean intelligence operative [the US calls North Korean diplomats and international businesspeople “intelligence operatives”]—and the second ever foreign intelligence operative—to have been extradited to the United States for violation of our laws.” Note that a top Justice Department official is claiming foreigners who have never been in the US can be extradited here for violating “our laws.” Demers then ludicrously claims Mun’s export of goods to North Korea was a national security threat to US people: “We will continue to use the long reach of our laws to protect the American people from sanctions evasion and other national security threats.” Assistant Director Alan Kohler Jr. of the FBI’s Counterintelligence Division, added ominously, ”We hope he will be the first of many.”

The US has enforced sanctions, or blockade, against North Korea since 1950, at the start of the US war on Korea. The sanctions have been designed to cut the country off from international trade and cripple its economic and social development. The US claims present-day sanctions were enacted because of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, which is a perfectly legitimate self-defense program by a country targeted by the US’ own nuclear weapons.

North Korean Charge d’Affaires Kim Yu Song in Malaysia condemned the extradition as an “unpardonable crime” and 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.

The Case of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou

The most infamous (1) of the three cases is that of Meng Wanzhou, who has been Chief Financial Officer and Deputy Chair of the Board of Huawei for the past 25 years. She faces charges of bank fraud for allegedly misleading HSBC, a British bank, about Huawei business dealings in Iran, causing the bank to break illegal US sanctions against Iran. On August 22, 2018, a US District Court in New York issued an arrest warrant for Meng, and Canada’s RCMP then arrested her in Vancouver on December 1, 2018. She has now been under house arrest there for almost two and half years. The Chinese government has called the detention “lawless, reasonless and ruthless, and it is extremely vicious.”

The Trump administration relied on two Reuters articles in 2012 and 2013 to accuse Huawei of violating these US sanctions on Iran. The US imposed sanctions shortly after Iran’s 1979 revolution. The present US sanctions are claimed to be in response to Iran’s nuclear weapons program, even though the country has not been developing nuclear weapons. All UN-approved measures against Iran were ended with the JCPOA (Iran Nuclear Agreement) of 2015, and the International Atomic Energy Agency confirmed that Iran was in compliance with the deal.

Thus, the justification for US sanctions on Iran has no basis and violates international law, because the sanctions that Meng is alleged to have circumvented are illegal according to the UN Security Council. Moreover, both the US and its principal Middle East ally Israel possess stockpiles of nuclear weapons. As with North Korea, Iran would have the right to protect itself from US or Israeli nuclear attack by developing its own weapons. It is the height of hypocrisy that the only country that has used nuclear weapons actually sanctions other countries for allegedly developing them.

K.J. Noh wrote: “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. 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 pointed out, first, that the US government has deliberately misstated evidence and withheld evidence from the Canadian Court. Second, the Trump administration is using her as a “bargaining chip.” Third, 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,” said her lawyers.

It is also highly unusual for Washington to pursue criminal charges for sanctions violations against an individual rather than a corporation. Where an executive is carrying out corporate policy, one would expect individuals not to be charged, rather, the corporation would be fined. As Jeffrey Sacks noted:

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.

The likelihood is that Saab, Mun, or Meng would receive about as “fair” a trial as that inflicted on the Cuban 5 or Simon Trinidad. These are political cases, disguised as criminal cases, with the crime being violation of US sanctions laws, illegal in a UN court, by non-US citizens living outside the US. Consequently, ignoring US sanctions would be the legal course of action; adhering to them is illegal.

The US is flaunting recognized world law by charging the three for legal business between nations that violates illegal US measures. All three represent the interests of governments the US seeks to crush, and all three detentions are the equivalent of hostage taking.

These cases open the door for the United States to charge and extradite any person in the world for “organized crime, money laundering or financing of terrorism,” when they engage in perfectly legal international trade which the US declares violate its own unilateral sanctions on countries. As UN Human Rights rapporteur Alfred de Zayas wrote, powerful “rogue States” such as the US, “deliberately… breach international law and do it with impunity.”


(1) The first was Xu Yanjun, allegedly a member of Chinese Ministry of State Security, who was arrested in Belgium.

Stansfield Smith is a Chicago based anti-imperialist activist. He was active for over a decade in the Chicago Committee to Free the Cuban 5. His work is now on He has written on Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador for the Council on Hemispheric Affairs and on North Korea for Counterpunch and others.


bottom of page