MEXICO CITY -- A little known extradition case in Costa Rica is shedding light on Russia’s practice of vigorously defending its citizens arrested overseas and threatened with extradition to the United States on organized-crime charges.
The case involves Maxim Chukharev, a Russian arrested in May on charges of laundering money through Liberty Reserve, a money exchange platform that U.S. prosecutors say was the “bank of choice for the criminal underworld” before it was seized.
Last week, after a Costa Rican court gave the go-ahead for Chukharev to be sent to the United States, two senior Russian diplomats gave a dressing down to Costa Rican Ambassador Mario Fernandez Silva in Moscow, warning him that Costa Rica should ignore the extradition request because the “extraterritorial application of America law” is a “vicious practice which should be stopped.”
In a statement Friday, the Russian Foreign Ministry reiterated a warning for Russian nationals not to travel to any country that has extradition treaties with the United States if they suspect they are wanted by U.S. law-enforcement agencies.
“Experience shows that the trials of those who were basically abducted and taken to the U.S. are biased, based on shaky evidence and conspicuously accusatory. As a rule, they result in illegitimate verdicts with long prison terms,” the statement said.
A spate of recent arrests of overseas Russians casts a light on what U.S. officials say is the significant role of Russia in transnational crime. But the issues involved generate starkly different opinions from those worried by global crime syndicates and others who voice unease over the long reach of U.S. justice.
U.S. organized-crime experts say Russian criminals working overseas often have connections within the Russian government, and that the Russian government’s defense of them is meant to keep those links from emerging in the public light.
“Most of these guys operate with a significant amount of state protection. When they go down, the Russian state goes into full panic mode,” said Douglas Farah, a national security consultant and co-author of a book on Viktor Bout, a Russian arms trafficker extradited from Thailand and convicted in a U.S. federal court in 2011.
Bout, dubbed the “Merchant of Death” because he supplied weapons to a series of radical and outlaw groups, is now serving a 25-year prison term.
Russia is not the only country concerned about the U.S. prosecutions. The long arm of the U.S. law in pursuing foreigners in third countries makes some legal experts in Europe and Latin America uncomfortable.
“It gives the impression that there might be a certain abuse of power from a powerful country,” said Juan Carlos Esquivel, a Costa Rican lawyer who is president of the anti-money-laundering committee of the Inter-American Bar Association. Esquivel noted that the use of digital currencies is not regulated in his country.
“If Costa Rica doesn’t obey what the United States suggests, what happens? Tomorrow, the U.S. could come out with regulations prohibiting U.S. citizens from investing here,” he said.
An expert on money laundering at the University of Hamburg, Ingo Fiedler, said he is uneasy about how U.S. laws seem to trump international regulations.
“The USA has the tendency to export their law to other countries by threatening the respective countries,” Fiedler said. “Thus, I can understand Russia’s decision that they do not want a citizen committing a crime in Costa Rica to have a trial in the USA.”