Austrian case casts doubt on Pompeo’s defence of US extradition policy
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Austrian case casts doubt on Pompeo’s defence of US extradition policy

Monday, 02 September 2019
This is an opinion article by an external contributor. The views belong to the writer.
Meng Wanzhou was apprehended in Vancouver late last year at US authorities’ behest; the charges against her included bank and wire fraud. In response, China promptly arrested two Canadians in Beijing on suspicion of espionage.
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US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has vehemently rejected suggestions that Washington’s extradition request for Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou is a bargaining chip in President Trump’s ongoing trade war with China.

Pompeo reacted angrily to accusations that the US had ordered Canadian authorities to detain Meng for political reasons and claimed that the US has an impeccable track record when it comes to its extradition requests.

The timely resurfacing of another case may undermine Pompeo’s arguments, with Austrian authorities especially well placed to see through the subterfuge. US prosecutors have been seeking the extradition of Ukrainian oligarch Dimitri Firtash for five years, but lingering suspicions over their ulterior motives cast lengthy shadows on their integrity vis-à-vis both Firtash and Meng.

Diplomatic tit for tat

Meng was apprehended in Vancouver late last year at US authorities’ behest; the charges against her included bank and wire fraud. In response, China promptly arrested two Canadians in Beijing on suspicion of espionage and harming national security in a move widely perceived as thinly-veiled retaliation. Canadian-Chinese relations have soured as a result, with Beijing refusing to buy staple products such as pork and soybeans from Ottawa.

In last week’s press conference, Pompeo discredited the idea that the two detentions were comparable, as well as flatly denying that the request for Meng to be extradited has a political side. Pompeo’s first credibility problem comes from his own boss— President Trump has previously expressly stated that he might intervene in the Meng case in exchange for a better trade deal with Beijing. Pompeo nevertheless sought to distance himself and the DoJ from the president’s own words, claiming that Meng’s arrest – like all of Washington’s extradition requests – was only sanctioned after due diligence and accumulation of substantial evidence.

Case study from Viennese courts

However, those words appear to hold little water given the DoJ’s recent track record. In particular, the case of Ukrainian business magnate Firtash—who reportedly amassed a fortune acting as a go-between for Russian and Ukrainian gas companies—stands out as a prime example of the DoJ’s chicanery.

In October 2013, Washington asked the Austrian government to apprehend Firtash, alleging that he had planned to bribe Indian officials to lock down a titanium mining deal. This request was quickly rescinded, however, after Vienna received a mysterious message from American officials: “As part of a larger strategy, US authorities have determined we need to pass up this opportunity”.

Firtash claims that the US in fact wants him for political reasons—to punish him for his support of certain Ukrainian politicians, or to convince him to give information on Russian and Ukrainian elites. The timing of Washington’s extradition requests bolsters his argument—the initial demand that Austria arrest Firtash suspiciously coincided with US assistant secretary of state Victoria Nuland’s visit to Ukraine. Apparently, Nuland believed she had obtained assurances from Ukraine’s then-president Viktor Yanukovych that he would sign an association agreement with the EU. So long as Yanukovych was turned towards the West, the US seemed willing to leave Firtash— a close associate of Yanukovych’s— alone. Right after Yanukovych was ousted, however, Washington made another request for Firtash’s arrest, casting significant doubt on the integrity of the DoJ’s motives.

Austria holding firm

As well as highlighting this dubious timing, Austrian authorities have accused the DoJ of exaggerating the importance of a key piece of evidence. The so-called ‘Exhibit A’, a PowerPoint slide mentioning bribery, was presented as clear proof that Firtash planned to bribe Indian authorities. It has since emerged, however, that the slide in question were compiled not by Firtash or his associates but by US consultancy firm McKinsey. The DoJ’s refusal to withdraw Exhibit A from evidence, even after realising that McKinsey had prepared the slide, has dealt a potentially fatal blow to their case against Firtash.

Given its political undertones, the DoJ’s case was already on shaky ground—in fact, the Austrian judge who had initially assessed the extradition request rejected it in April 2015. The situation has only become thornier in the intervening five years. The case appeared to be tipping in the DoJ’s favour after a February 2017 ruling in Vienna overturned the “politically motivated” interpretation of the case and proceeded with the extradition process.

Just last month, however, the saga took another unexpected turn when reports in the US claimed that Andrew Weissmann – erstwhile deputy to special counsel Robert Mueller – had allegedly offered Firtash a deal to drop the charges in exchange for information which would have helped Mueller’s inquiry. The revelations have caused the case to be reopened in Austria all over again, indefinitely putting the brakes on the Ukrainian’s extradition.

Problematic track record

Only months ago, it seemed as if Firtash might soon be on a plane to the United States, but the wheels have now come careening off the DoJ’s wagon. Two of their key witnesses have rescinded their testimonies, claiming that they were prewritten or elicited under coercion from the FBI, while Exhibit A’s reliability is in tatters. Meanwhile, Weissmann’s alleged courting of Firtash has cast fresh aspersions on the DoJ’s trustworthiness.

Pompeo may cite lofty arguments about the rectitude of the DoJ’s conduct, but the puffed-up pomp of his rhetoric does not quite align with the suspicious circumstances of its recent history. The mounting evidence which points to ulterior motives in the Firtash case precipitates a proportional decline in credibility surrounding the Meng one, and furthermore damaging the US’s reputation as a pillar of moral conduct.

It’s extremely rare for Western allies to refuse each other’s extradition requests. Indeed, Austria’s initial decision not to extradite Firtash was seen as a startling development reflecting “the diminished credibility of the United States authorities, even in the eyes of a European ally”. With US allies’ trust in Washington falling to new lows under the Trump administration,  Ottawa may not have much faith in Pompeo’s blustering on the Meng case.