Ukraine Oligarch Loses U.S. Extradition Fight, Is Arrested

  • U.S. seeks Ukrainian on corruption charges that he denies
  • Tycoon arrested on separate Spanish warrant as he left court

Dmitry Firtash, the Ukrainian billionaire, speaks on his mobile telephone outside the Group DF offices following a Bloomberg Television interview in Vienna on March 14, 2016.

An Austrian appeals court approved a U.S. request to extradite Dmitry Firtash on corruption charges in a surprise decision that opens the way for the Ukrainian tycoon to be sent to the U.S. for trial.

But that could be delayed after the case took another unexpected turn minutes after the verdict on Tuesday, when plainclothes Austrian police arrested Firtash as he left the courthouse on a separate Spanish warrant. Magistrates in Barcelona charged him with money laundering and engaging in organized crime, according to a document seen by Bloomberg.

Firtash, who made much of his fortune in the gas trade and expanded into chemicals and television, is one of Ukraine’s most powerful men. He has deep ties to Russia, having profited from deals with gas giant Gazprom and businessmen from the inner circle of President Vladimir Putin, adding to his potential interest for U.S. law enforcement. Firtash’s defense team had argued that the U.S. prosecution was politically motivated, an effort to sideline him for his pro-Russian views.

In its decision, Vienna’s Higher Regional Court overturned a 2015 lower-court ruling that had blocked the extradition. Tuesday’s judgment is not subject to further appeal except for an extraordinary supreme court complaint under narrow conditions. The ultimate decision to hand him over to the U.S. lies with the Austrian Ministry of Justice.

Justice Minister Wolfgang Brandstetter said that he won’t make a decision about the U.S. request before Austrian courts have dealt with the Spanish warrant. “At the end of this review the question will have to be answered which request we’ll have to comply with,” Brandstetter told public broadcaster ORF in an interview.

Corruption Charges

“It wasn’t for us to judge whether Mr. Firtash was guilty, but only whether the extradition is allowed,” Judge Leo Levnaic-Iwanski said in the ruling on the U.S. request Tuesday. “This decision only means that another country will make a decision whether he is guilty.” He highlighted the importance of international cooperation to combat cross-border white-collar crimes.

Firtash’s Austrian lawyers said in a statement they “remain confident that Mr. Firtash’s innocence will be proven” and will take the case to Austria’s supreme court and to the European Court of Human Rights. It declined to comment on the Spanish arrest warrant and said the allegations in it weren’t disclosed to them. His U.S. legal team said in a statement that it is “disappointed” in the decision and will fight the charges in the U.S.

Nicole Navas, a Justice Department spokeswoman, declined to comment on the details of the case while saying that her agency thanked Austria’s government for its cooperation.

U.S. prosecutors are seeking Firtash, a one-time ally of ousted Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, on allegations he led a conspiracy to pay $18.5 million to Indian officials to facilitate a $500 million titanium project there. 

Firtash denied the charges. His legal team, led by former Austrian Justice Minister Dieter Boehmdorfer, called them politically motivated.

“In February of 2014, the U.S. wanted to remove Mr. Firtash from the geopolitical and from the Ukrainian domestic game,” defense lawyer Christian Hausmaninger told the court. “Mr. Firtash stood in the way of U.S. interests in Ukraine.”

Political Motivation

U.S. prosecutors rejected that claim. In new filings with the court last year, they submitted wiretaps showing what they said was evidence of Firtash’s ties with organized crime. In Tuesday’s hearings, Firtash’s lawyers denounced that as misleading and outdated.

The appeals court heard no new testimony Tuesday. The judge said there was sufficient evidence to establish suspicion, which is the basis for extradition. He ruled that the defense arguments of political motivation applied when the crimes in question were themselves at least partly political, not criminal.

“There’s a high bar to prove political motivation and the case in question doesn’t show any dishonest interest,” the judge said. “The U.S. is a country with a long tradition of democracy and rule of law.”

“The affected person isn’t prosecuted by the U.S. Department of State but from the judiciary,” he said. “And the U.S. judiciary only recently impressively demonstrated that it’s independent from the government when it lifted the entry ban,” he said, referring to the recent ruling suspending the presidential order limiting immigration.

Kremlin Ties

The U.S. has been investigating Firtash since at least 2006, after he emerged as a major shareholder in a little-known company that controlled much of the multibillion-dollar gas trade between Russia and Ukraine.

In addition to Gazprom, his Russian partners include ally Arkady Rotenberg, a longtime Putin friend who is subject to U.S. sanctions. Another Rotenberg ally, Vasily Anisimov, lent Firtash the money to post 125 million euros in bail in Austria while the extradition request was being heard. Gazprombank, one of Russia’s largest lenders, has regularly backed Firtash’s projects.

“Firtash has long been closely tied to Putin and his circle and he knows a lot that the people around Putin wouldn’t like to see public,” said Stanislav Belkovsky, a Moscow political analyst. “Naturally, the extradition of Firtash and his subsequent testimony in America don’t make these people happy. The risks for Putin’s elite are rising.”

In a 2014 interview with Bloomberg, Firtash said there’s nothing that U.S. prosecutors could offer him that would entice him to reveal what he knows about Russia’s gas business.

— With assistance by Tom Schoenberg

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