The United States Department of Justice has a well-earned reputation for ruthlessness in its pursuit of lawbreakers, to the point where serious concerns have been raised they are trampling on the rights of the accused. It’s gotten to the point where politically motivated prosecutions, while not exactly commonplace are alarmingly frequent. One does not need be a juris doctor to recognize the system is sick: The way Alaska Republican Ted Stevens was railroaded out of the U.S. Senate on a train driven by the DOJ’s Public Integrity section is proof enough of that.
Though the Stevens case may be the best known it is not by far the last word on prosecutorial overreach and over-criminalization. Unfortunately these tactics have leaked out of DOJ into other departments of the executive branch – with embarrassing consequences for the United States and the cause of justice.
Consider the State Department, where Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs Victoria Nuland has been caught trying unsuccessfully to pressure the government of another country to issue a legal finding that would help her in her efforts to bring pressure on the government of yet another country.
Austrian Judge Christoph Bauer recently denied a request that Dmytro Firtash, a Ukrainian “oligarch” with expansive interests in energy, mining, and metals be extradited to the United States to answer charges that he and several associates tried several years ago to bribe officials in India as part of an effort to obtain licenses to mine titanium.
Judge Bauer ruled, according to a posting on the Progressive Radio Network’s website that Nuland “attempted to pressure the President of Ukraine, Victor Yanukovich, into accepting Ukrainian association with the European Union by threatening Ukrainian oligarch Dmitry Firtash with arrest, extradition to the U.S., and imprisonment on allegations of bribery several years ago in India.”
The case has received a measure of attention in the international community because of the issues involved and the role Nuland and the U.S. government have played. “Lawyers involved in Mr. Firtash’s case say that the (United States) Justice Department specifically chose Austria as the country in which to seek Mr. Firtash’s arrest,” the New York Times wrote on April 29, “even though he spent extended periods of time in France and England, because the department believed the Austrian authorities would more readily agree to extradite him.”
The department was wrong. Judge Bauer refused to issue the extradition order on the grounds that there had been improper political interference on the part of the U.S. government and that entire effort was “politically motivated.” The fact that Nuland’s comings and goings to and from Ukraine (and for that matter Austria) dovetail nicely with key events in the Firtash case would seem to support what the judge is saying.
That Firtash is one of those oligarchs who rose up in Eastern Europe after the fall of the Soviet Union is indisputable. Once a close ally of Yanukovich, to whom Nuland was applying pressure on her various visits to Ukraine, he reportedly broke with him after Yanukovich cracked down harshly, some would say dictatorially on pro-democracy demonstrators. Firtash may also have helped, and there are conflicting stories on this, broker a deal that put a new president in power (but not necessarily the candidate of Nuland’s choosing).
The oligarchs who proliferate throughout Russia and the rest of the former Soviet Union are not white knights; they are nefarious characters with undoubtedly shady connections but, under the American system, every man and woman is entitled to due process and the presumption of innocence. Given the level of involvement of the U.S. government in his Austrian trial that ideal should count for something. The State Department denies much of this, specifically the suggestion that Nuland’s trip to Vienna during the trial was for the purpose of influencing it. Others are not so sure.
Judge Bauer was highly critical of the extradition request, saying it hung almost exclusively on the testimony of two alleged witnesses to the alleged bribery. No one could prove any money actually changed hands and the titanium concession was never granted. If you’re going to concoct a fairy story as the basis for sending someone to jail there ought to be at least some evidence to back it up, shouldn’t there?
Having the U.S. government– through the State Department and its senior officials – bring its power to bear on the legal system of sovereign and democratic state and against a single individual, insisting perhaps sub rosa that one country assist in going after a citizen of a second country alleged to have committed crimes in a third is troubling – especially with so much else going on that seems more important.
American’s position around the globe is not better than it was when Obama came into office and – some would argue – is considerably worse. He and his team have, with their statements and actions, managed to alienate a number of important and long-time U.S. allies including Israel, Germany, Poland and the Czech Republic. Moreover, it is on Obama’s watch that we have seen Vladimir Putin’s Russia reassert itself as a global leader and head of the coalition of nations who find the U.S. position on the global stage something of an annoyance. All this, by the way, is in Nuland’s portfolio.
The whole business smells so badly that Congress, as it considers what to fund and what to authorize the department to do regarding Eastern Europe and Eurasia in the coming years, ought to put Ms. Nuland on the hot seat. It should ask some pointed questions to find out if she was acting on her own or following the orders of someone higher up. How many agencies in total were involved? How much U.S. taxpayer money went toward this effort, what is the legal theory involved that allows for this and just why she was so interested in Mr. Firtash.?
Obama’s foreign policy is a disaster. Rather than do the country’s business or pursue the president’s agenda there may some unhelpful – let’s call it “free-lancing” going on. This is not the way a democratic superpower should allow its diplomats and representatives to behave. America should not abuse the legal customs of other nations in an effort to force world leaders to agree to what some assistant secretary in Foggy Bottom wants.
Peter Roff is a senior fellow at Frontiers of Freedom, a non-partisan group concerned with global defense policy and foreign affairs.