Final US attack on Canadian businessman crumbles - Sabzali 'finally free'

Stubborn resistance and world support ends eight-year, eight million dollar ordeal

Jim Sabzali PHILADELPHIA (11 April 2005) -- EIGHT YEARS of battle over a key embargo issue came to a close early this year as the US government quietly withdrew its final attack on Canadian businessman James Sabzali, an effort to deport him from his adopted home in the United States. Washington had pursued deportation despite an earlier plea agreement with Sabzali. "The government reneged on its offer," he explained in an interview.

But now deportation has joined the original 76 charges filed against Sabzali in the rubble that was once Washington's largest prosecution for violation of its anti-Cuba embargo. Sabzali had faced life imprisonment and over $19 million USD in fines for sales of water purification supplies to Cuban hospitals. And while both the charges and their scale captured attention, the stakes were even more compelling: could the United States make its blockade legally binding on the entire world?

Key was Sabzali's being a Canadian citizen conducting business inside Canada for the majority of his alleged violations of the US Trading with the Enemy Act. What's more, the Canadian Extraterritorial Measures Act simultaneously prohibited him from cooperating with the US embargo.

And so the issue seemed simply posed: whose laws were paramount in Canada -- Ottawa's or Washington? Could the United States override law inside another sovereign nation?

Sure thing

However extraordinary that possibility, there seemed little question that Sabzali would nonetheless fall under the wheels of the relentless US blockade against Cuba.

After all, the case against him opened in the midst of Washington sharply tightening its stranglehold on the island in anticipation of Cuba's "imminent collapse" following the breakup of the Soviet Union.

Imposing draconian criminal sanctions on both foreign and its own citizens was simply a logical component of these escalations, a criminal law version of the Torricelli and Helms-Burton Acts.

In any case, Sabzali seemed an unlikely leading man for such an international clash. The smallish, quietly handsome family man Canadian citizen from Trinidad -- was a businessman with a degree in chemistry. " Canadians have always had good relationships with Cubans," says Sabzali, now 46. "I was Canadian, I was in business for myself, and Cuba was an opportunity. So I went and did business with them."

Nor were his co-defendants, the US-based Bro-Tech Corporation and its chief officers Stefan and Donald Brodie, likely standard-bearers for a battle against the blockade.

Indeed, their defense strategy was to retain highly influential lawyers -- including president Clinton's personal attorney -- to 'make the case go away', the usual way that the wealthy avoid prison here, even if their crimes involve billions of dollars or even death.

Such appeals to what's called the "old boys' network" -- (capitalist class solidarity) regularly result in dismissal of all charges or, at worst, short sentences in special prisons with private accommodations and no walls -- prisons commonly called "Club Fed," a reference to the all-expenses-paid hedonistic facilities run by the tourist corporation named Club Med.

In fact (reported here for the first time) negotiations on this case took place with the US Attorney General -- the highest US law enforcement officer -- rather than with the local official actually carrying out the prosecution.

But of course historic geopolitical considerations -- the US rulers' profound hostility to the Cuban Revolution and their belief in its 'impending collapse' overwhelmed the usual advantages conferred by either direct access to the Attorney General or being represented by the President's lawyer. The highest levels of the US government had decided Sabzali and his codefendants were going to go to prison, perhaps for a very long time indeed.


This intransigent position also allowed Washington to focus pressure on the lowest person being charged -- James Sabzali. It began by seizing not only his passport, but also those of his wife and two young children, thereby detaining even his family.

At the same time, Washington seized the deed to Sabzali's house, meaning even a successful (if highly unlikely) escape from the US would lose the family a property representing most of its life savings.

But in any case fleeing would be difficult indeed, thanks to the electronic bracelet on Sabzali's ankle that was constantly scanned to determine his location. A trip ten miles from his house would set off alarms and dispatch federal agents to the precise location given by his bracelet.

Sabzali had only to agree to testify against his codefendants to make all this -- including the 76 charges against him -- "go away." Or at the very least to ensure his future would be far brighter than life in a federal penitentiary.

So as the millennium drew to a close, it seemed Washington had all its dominoes in place. And surely, with the momentum its anti-Cuba juggernaut steadily gained through the 1990's, they would fall: first Sabzali; then Bro-Tech; then Canadian law; next, resistance to a worldwide blockade; and finally the Cuban economy and the revolution itself. Perhaps forty-five years of war was about to pay off.


The first hint that things might not proceed that smoothly came from domino number one: Sabzali. He turned aside all threats and promises, and refused to collaborate with the government against his codefendants. To him this was no heroic act; as he explained in a recent interview for Granma, it was simple: "the government was wrong. There was no point in cooperating with them because I did nothing wrong."

The significance of this straightforward attitude almost surely escaped Washington, which proceeded towards trial apparently confident that the full weight and power of the US government would win convictions anyway. But in fact Sabzali's quiet resolve had begun turning the whole case around; instead of a silent capitulation there would be a public fight, a struggle that would ultimately begin the dominoes falling in the opposite direction.

Indeed, news of the 76 charges filed against Sabzali caused what one Philadelphia newspaper called "a storm of protest" in Canada, long-tired of having its sovereignty violated by its colossal southern neighbor. Canadian editorialists called the charges "outrageous" and demanded their government oppose them, and Canadians citizens poured out letters of support for Sabzali; shortly thereafter Ottawa sent off first one and then another diplomatic protest to Washington.

Behind the outcry in Canada lay a growing international rejection of the US blockade, a rejection not about to quietly abide Washington imposing its anti-Cuba laws inside other countries. And so as news of the case spread, so did worldwide support for Sabzali; the Scottish Parliament passed a protest resolution, and tens of thousands of Cubans demonstrated their backing, while Cuba solidarity activists in the United States unleashed a cascade of electronic publicity.

Rising opposition and the glare of international publicity increasingly revealed that, once again, the US rulers had miscalculated their ability to strangle Cuba. The plan to use Sabzali to establish US law applied outside its borders was in jeopardy.

Although Sabzali and his co-defendants were convicted in early 2002 on scores of charges, a slow retreat soon began. By June 2003 the same court actually overturned its own 'guilty' verdicts, the judge -- recognizing the US government had over-reached -- citing grievous prosecutorial misconduct that otherwise would have passed unnoticed. What came next was an agreement between defense and prosecution on a guilty plea to a single, lesser charge and no requirement of jail time -- thus sparing both Washington further embarrassment and Sabzali another trial and the possibility of life in prison.

Sabzali pointed out that "the difference between the 76 counts and the single one we settled on is between possible life in prison and a single year of probation. It's a chasm that speaks volumes about the strength of the government's case."

Passing the torch

But while Sabzali called the agreement a "victory", the story was not yet over for him.

Next would come Washington's reneging on its agreement and its efforts to deport him -- and then finally its January 20th dropping of that endeavor.

And so after nearly five years of what he calls "all-consuming" struggle that left him "cut off from society, and unable to do anything else," Sabzali looks forward "to resuming normal life, being finally free" of the case. After half a decade without a passport, no surprise that travel is near the top of his list.

"Unfortunately," says Sabzali, "I cannot continue my friendships in Cuba." Like all residents of the United States, regardless of their citizenship, he is prevented from visiting Cuba by the US travel ban -- a small reminder that the embargo goes on.

In fact, even the issues in his own case are not entirely resolved. Sabzali's single guilty plea was for a 1994 transaction carried out while he was an independent businessman living in Canada. This establishes, said the US prosecutor Joseph Poluka in an interview, that "you're not allowed to violate the laws of this country just because you live outside it."

Sabzali disputes the simplicity of that judgment: "I was convicted not for what I did, but for what I didn't do. I was supposed to inform the US authorities that some of its citizens were violating US law [by trading with Cuba]. What I pled guilty to was knowing that something was happening that was against US law (not against Canadian law or any other law in the world) and not alerting the US authorities that this was happening. But conducting business with Cuba from Canada remains perfectly legal."

In any case, according to Pamela Martin, a consultant for US companies seeking business with Cuba, "the incredible size and length of this case -- and the eight million dollars it cost the defendants -- does have a certain chilling effect on people thinking about trading with Cuba here."

And so as Sabzali's story comes to a slightly equivocal close, it reveals itself as just a chapter in a tale many decades long -- a volume of stories and struggles that continue every day.

But it's a chapter that shines far beyond its pages, exposing the Empire's weakness in the face of international support for one man's refusal to capitulate to injustice.

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