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Austrian Court Says Ukrainian Businessman Can Be Extradited to United States

But that doesn't mean he's Washington-bound just yet.

By , a global affairs journalist and the author of The Influence of Soros and Bad Jews.
firtash
firtash

On Tuesday, a Vienna court ruled that Dmitry Firtash, a Ukrainian businessman wanted in the United States on bribery charges, can indeed be extradited to the United States.

It’s not just a new wrinkle in an old case: It potentially has big political implications, too.

In 2015, a lower court had blocked the extradition request, agreeing with Firtash’s legal team that the U.S. case was politically motivated. Firtash allegedly oversaw a scheme to pay $18.5 million to Indian officials to move along a $500 million titanium project in India beginning in 2006. Firtash, in the original case, said he would not confess to bribing the Indian officials, and that his views on how Ukraine should develop are different from those held by the U.S. government.

On Tuesday, a Vienna court ruled that Dmitry Firtash, a Ukrainian businessman wanted in the United States on bribery charges, can indeed be extradited to the United States.

It’s not just a new wrinkle in an old case: It potentially has big political implications, too.

In 2015, a lower court had blocked the extradition request, agreeing with Firtash’s legal team that the U.S. case was politically motivated. Firtash allegedly oversaw a scheme to pay $18.5 million to Indian officials to move along a $500 million titanium project in India beginning in 2006. Firtash, in the original case, said he would not confess to bribing the Indian officials, and that his views on how Ukraine should develop are different from those held by the U.S. government.

Indeed: Firtash was an ally of former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych — who was backed by Russian President Vladimir Putin — and he was detained in Austria just days after the Kremlin-friendly leader’s March 2014 ouster.

But if the case was politically complicated then, it is hardly less so now. Firtash, rumored to have made a killing in the shady seams of the natural gas business between Russia and Ukraine, allegedly has business ties with Americans — including one Paul Manafort, President Donald Trump’s former campaign chairman.

In August, when reports of Manafort’s ties in the region emerged, Manafort told NBC News, “There was one occasion where an opportunity was explored. … Nothing transpired and no business relationship was ever implemented.”

Rumors are still swirling about the Trump team’s alleged ties to Russia. On Feb. 13, former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn resigned for having lied to Vice President Michael Pence about whether he discussed lifting sanctions with the Russian ambassador to the United States (he did).

On Feb. 14, the New York Times published a report that the Trump team had indeed had contact with Russian officials during the campaign, despite official denials from the White House. Members of Congress from both parties have said they will look into what ties might possibly bind the U.S. president to Russia.

It is as yet unclear whether Trump’s Department of Justice will still want to extradite Firtash, though, so far, there is no sign it would oppose extradition. In response to a request for comment, the Department of Justice said in a statement to Foreign Policy, “While, as a general policy, the U.S. Department of Justice does not comment on the particulars of pending extradition cases, we would like to extend our thanks to the Government of Austria for our close cooperation on law enforcement matters.” As Austrian Judge Leo Levnaic-Iwanski said on Tuesday, “It wasn’t for us to judge whether Mr. Firtash was guilty, but only whether the extradition is allowed. This decision only means that another country will make a decision whether he is guilty.”

But which country will that be? After the court’s ruling, Firtash was arrested in Vienna by a plainclothes officer in connection with a separate warrant issued by Spain, which put him on an international wanted list in November, for alleged money laundering. Austria’s Justice Ministry may have to decide where, if anywhere, Firtash will face justice. A spokesperson for the Justice Ministry said it was too soon to say whether the Spanish warrant will impact Firtash’s extradition to the United States.

Update, Feb. 21 2017 3:10 pm ET: This piece has been updated to include comment from the U.S. Department of Justice.

Photo credit: SAMUEL KUBANI/AFP/Getty Images

Emily Tamkin is a global affairs journalist and the author of The Influence of Soros and Bad Jews. Twitter: @emilyctamkin

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