A Vienna court late on Thursday rejected a US Department of Justice request to extradite Dmitry Firtash, a Russia-linked Ukrainian oligarch and former partner of Gazprom in the multibillion-dollar regional natural gas trade.
The ruling is a major victory for Mr Firtash, who in the witness box described bribery charges related to an Indian titanium venture that never materialised as “absolutely untrue”. His defence team accused the US of waging a politically-motivated witch-hunt linked to the continuing standoff over Ukraine.
The Austrian judge ultimately accepted that argument, in an embarrassment to the US that could be seized on by Russia.
At times, the hearing focused heavily on Ukrainian political intrigues and Mr Firtash’s claims that the US was trying to sideline him rather than on the Indian business dealings for which justice department officials were seeking to prosecute him.
Executing a US request, Austrian authorities detained Mr Firtash in March 2014, days after his political patron, Russian-backed Viktor Yanukovich, was ousted as Ukraine’s president.
Forced to remain in Austria for a year on a record €125m bail, the 49-year-old is now free to travel, though it is not clear if US officials will continue to pursue him.
Mr Firtash’s business interests in Ukraine span chemical factories dependent on Russian gas imports, titanium, banking and media, but a return there might carry risk.
His business empire there faces mounting probes and other challenges as part of a broadening “de-oligarchisation” campaign waged by the pro-western leadership. Officials say the aim of the process, which has targeted prominent billionaires including Igor Kolomoisky and Ukraine’s richest man Rinat Akhmetov, is to release the country’s ailing economy and politics from the longstanding influence of oligarchs, to boost competition and halt a drain on state coffers.
Immediately after Mr Firtash was arrested last year, his Group DF described the US bribery charges as a “misunderstanding” that “was not connected with the situation in Ukraine” and would be “resolved in the very near term”.
But addressing the Vienna court on Thursday, Mr Firtash and his lawyers reportedly claimed the charges were linked to the US view that he was Russian-leaning and a rival of pro-western politicians — namely former and current prime ministers Yulia Tymoshenko and Arseniy Yatseniuk.
While serving as prime minister in 2005 and again from 2007 through 2010, Ms Tymoshenko campaigned hard to remove Swiss-registered RosUkrEnergo, co-owned by Mr Firtash and Gazprom, from a “middleman” role in supplying Ukraine with gas. She succeeded while brokering a new gas agreement with Russia in 2009, but was jailed for the decision under Mr Yanukovich’s 2010-2014 presidency and only released in the wake of last year’s Maidan revolution.
Efforts to curb Mr Firtash’s position in Ukraine’s regional gas sector continued this April, with lawmakers adopting legislation that imposed fees on regional supply companies for access to state-owned pipelines.
On Wednesday, a Kiev court upheld government requests to seize 500m cu m of stockpiled gas belonging to Mr Firtash’s Ostchem chemical operation on embezzlement charges over $250m allegedly owed to state-owned gas company Naftogaz.
Speaking ahead of the court ruling, Mr Yatseniuk accused Mr Firtash and his business partner Serhiy Lyovochkin, formerly presidential administration chief under Mr Yanukovich, of “feeding like vampires upon Naftogaz for decades, embezzling billions.”
Also on Wednesday, Ukraine’s interior ministry, in a statement, unveiled plans to further investigate Mr Firtash’s businesses in co-operation with the US Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Mr Firtash’s Group DF in a statement described the allegations as a “planned and prolonged campaign for political repression”.
In a Financial Times interview last year, Mr Firtash admitted to being a “good friend” and having business relations with Russian billionaire Arkady Rotenberg, reportedly a judo sparring partner of Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president. But, he rejected the idea that US charges against him were aimed at putting pressure on Mr Putin.
“Putin doesn’t care if I’m arrested or not,” he said.
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