Austrian extradition could spell trouble for Trump

Ukrainian oligarch Dmytro Firtash arrives at court in Vienna, 21 February. [Reuters]

An Austrian court on Tuesday (22 February) approved the extradition of Ukrainian businessman Dmytro Firtash to the United States in a bribery case, overturning an earlier ruling that had said the US request was politically motivated.

Firtash, who denies the US bribery allegations, is a former supporter of Ukraine’s ousted pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovich. Firtash made a fortune selling Russian gas to the Kyiv government.

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The Ukrainian oligarch has not returned to Ukraine since his initial detention in Vienna in March 2014. He paid a record bail of $125 million at the time.

Firtash bought the Ukrainian service of Euronews in 2015, when he was already under home arrest in Vienna, awaiting extradition to the US on a number of charges, including bribery. The move to invest in Euronews was interpreted as an attempt to buy influence. He also co-owns Inter, a top Ukrainian television channel.

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Dirty linen

Firtash’s extradition could spell trouble for US President Donald Trump because his court testimony could expose the role of Paul Manaford, a professional lobbyist and Trump’s campaign manager, who worked for Firtash and for the former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Manaford, who resigned as Trump’s campaign manager six months ago, is back in the spotlight amid allegations from different sources that he and other Trump advisers were regularly in contact during the campaign with senior Russians officials. One of the Trump advisors is former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, who resigned on 13 February.

A diplomatic cable sent by the US envoy to Ukraine, Ambassador William B. Taylor, during the period in which Manafort and Firtash were in contact, which was later leaked by Wikileaks, says Firtash had ties to Russian organised crime and described him as “one of Ukraine’s most wealthy and notorious oligarchs”.

In August 2016, Manafort’s connections to Yanukovych and his Party of Regions drew attention in the US, when the Ukranian National Anti-Corruption Bureau claimed to have found documents showing that Manafort may have illegally received $12.7 million in off-the-books funds from the Party. Manafort’s lawyer, Richard A. Hibey, said Manafort didn’t receive “any such cash payments” as described by the anti-corruption officials.

After the Euromaidan revolution, Yanukovich escaped to Russia. Manafort then returned to Ukraine in September 2014 to become an advisor to Yanukovych’s former head of the Presidential Administration of Ukraine, Serhiy Lyovochkin. In this role, he was asked to assist in the rebranding of Yanukovych’s Party of Regions and helping create the Opposition Bloc.

Trump denied the claims that his advisers had close ties to Russia in a tweet on 15 February. Manaford has denied having a Russian intelligence connection, and that he had a business relationship with Firtash.

“There was one occasion where an opportunity was explored. … Nothing transpired and no business relationship was ever implemented,” he said in an interview with NBC.

Manaford has also explained that his work for the Yanukovich government in Ukraine should not be interpreted as closeness to the Russians. He said he worked for Yanukovich during a time when Ukraine was “moving into the European orbit”.

The Manafort-Firtash connection is reported to date back to at least 2008 when the two had plans to invest $900 million into revamping New York City’s Drake Hotel that never came to fruition. It has been alleged that the entire deal was conceived as a way for Firtash to “park his ill-gotten billions that he had syphoned out of Ukraine”.

Extradition and ‘fair trial’

In the extradition case, Judge Levnaic-Iwanski said the United States had provided further documents to strengthen its case against Firtash since a previous Austrian court ruling.

“This does not mean that somebody is being prejudged as guilty, but rather that it will be decided in another country whether they are guilty or innocent,” he said.

A US grand jury indicted Firtash in 2013, along with a member of India’s parliament and four others, on suspicion of bribing Indian government officials to gain access to minerals used to make titanium-based products.

Levnaic-Iwanski said the US charges against Firtash were of a wholly criminal nature and not related to politics. He added that the businessman, who was in the courtroom, would get a fair trial in the United States.

Political motive?

Speaking before Tuesday’s verdict, Firtash’s lawyer Dieter Boehmdorfer reiterated the accusation that the United States was motivated in the case by political interests.

“We must not allow Austria to become a stooge for the political world power the USA,” Boehmdorfer told the court, depicting Firtash as the victim of a US strategy to minimise Russian influence in Ukraine.

“We will be taking all appropriate steps to appeal this decision – including, in Austria through an appeal to the supreme court, as well as in Europe to the European Court of Human Rights,” Boehmdorfer said in a statement.

If an appeal were successful, Austrian Justice Minister Wolfgang Brandstetter could also overturn the extradition.