In the febrile world of Venezuelan politics, awash with rumours of plots, betrayals and imminent military uprisings, attorney-general Tarek William Saab is one of the great survivors.
As a young lawyer, he defended the then military officer Hugo Chávez after a failed coup attempt, then lobbied for his release from jail. And in the years after Chávez legitimately became president — February 2 1999 — Mr Saab was again close at hand.
“I went on 25 or 30 international trips with Hugo Chávez,” he recalled in an interview with the Financial Times in his offices in central Caracas. “I met Saddam Hussein, Colonel Gaddafi, the royal families of Saudi Arabia, of Norway, of Spain.”
Twenty-one years after Chávez first took office, Mr Saab remains a pillar of a regime in Caracas that is defying international pressure and a domestic challenge to its legitimacy.
Nicolás Maduro, Chávez’s successor, has bypassed the country’s democratically elected congress and extended his rule for six years on the basis of widely discredited elections. He is fighting off a challenge from Juan Guaidó, the leader of Venezuela’s congress, who declared himself the legitimate president last year but has since has made little headway in trying to unseat Mr Maduro despite US backing.
Mr Saab scoffs at the idea that Mr Guaidó — who he calls “a joker” — will be able to take power any time soon. In a rare interview with a senior official of Mr Maduro’s regime, he took on some of its fiercest regional opponents, calling Colombia a “narco-state” and the Brazil led by Jair Bolsonaro a “de facto dictatorship”.
As the country’s top public prosecutor since 2017, Mr Saab has also assumed the task of defending the Maduro regime against allegations of widespread human rights abuses.
Last July the UN’s Human Rights chief Michelle Bachelet accused the Maduro regime of “arbitrary detention, torture and ill-treatment, sexual violence, killings and enforced disappearance”. The number of apparent extrajudicial killings was “shockingly high”, she said.
By the government’s own admission, almost 5,300 people were killed in 2018 for “resistance to authority” and more than 1,500 in the first half of 2019. “Other sources suggest the figures may be much higher,” the report noted.
Mr Saab said that the Bachelet report was based on “contaminated” data, collected from biased non-governmental organisations. He insisted that the state properly punished police officers who went beyond the law.
“During my time as attorney-general, around 150 police officers have been convicted of human rights abuses and a further 1,000 are under investigation,” he said, adding that a number of those officers were from the FAES, a police “special action” unit that has been blamed for many atrocities.
Organisations including Amnesty International and New York-based Human Rights Watch say that black-clad FAES operatives have broken into the homes of civilians in Caracas, killed them and then tampered with the crime scene to cover their tracks.
Ms Bachelet’s report denounced FAES “executions” and urged Mr Maduro to dissolve the force.
Mr Saab, in response, said simply that the FAES had been “stigmatised”.
Rafael Uzcátegui, of Provea, a Venezuelan human rights NGO, said the government constantly published figures “that have no basis in reality”.
“At Provea we’re convinced, because of the evidence we’ve compiled in recent years, that there is no willingness to punish human rights abuses,” Mr Uzcátegui said.
A published author of free-form verse, Mr Saab was labelled by Chávez as “the poet of the revolution” — but also put his legal knowledge to work. When the president ordered a new constitution in 1999, Mr Saab was instrumental in drawing it up. He also served as a “Chavista” congressman for his home state of Anzoátegui and for a further eight years as state governor.
The 57-year-old son of Lebanese migrants has “Allah” tattooed on his neck in Arabic, although he professes to be a Buddhist, pulling back the sleeve of his jacket to reveal three circular symbols — mandalas — tattooed on his right hand.
Asked about allegations from the US and elsewhere that Venezuela is co-operating with Middle Eastern groups including Hizbollah — allowing it to fundraise and host training camps — he batted the question away. “These are just putrid lies. There’s no proof of these supposed links. It’s just gossip,” he said.
Mr Saab’s office is still investigating an audacious August 2018 drone attack against Mr Maduro. More than 30 people have been arrested in connection with it, including an opposition lawmaker who has been held at the notorious Helicoide detention centre in Caracas for more than 500 days.
The attorney-general’s office is trying to extradite more suspects from Colombia and the US but neither country will send anyone to Venezuela’s courts while the Maduro regime is in power.
Mr Saab said Colombia was “an aggressive narco-state that has been damaging our country for decades” and dismissed allegations that Venezuela harboured leftwing guerrilla groups from its neighbour.
“Obviously, Colombian criminal groups take advantage of our long border to come into Venezuela and commit crimes against us,” he said. “But their centre of operations is Colombia. We’ve been victims of their civil conflict for the past 60 years.”