‘Treaties don’t work’: Wanted Western fugitives hide in wartime Russia – Al Jazeera English

Moscow’s cooperation on extraditions with its westward neighbours has practically ceased since the Ukraine war began.
Chad Hower is a wanted man.
In 2009, the American software developer was federally indicted for parental kidnapping.
He had allegedly failed to appear at a court hearing in Venango County, Pennsylvania in the US with his 10-year-old son, Alex, contradicting a custody order from his ex-wife. Hower to this day insists on his innocence, claiming he had rightful custody.
A few weeks later, he was arrested at his hotel in Bulgaria where he’d been attending a conference.
“It was pretty horrible,” Hower told Al Jazeera from St Petersburg, Russia. “I went through five different Bulgarian prisons: they were full of roaches, there was no heat, four of us crammed into a room for two.”
Since Bulgaria doesn’t recognise parental kidnapping as a crime, Hower was eventually released. He moved to the small Caribbean island of Saint Kitts, where he was shortly joined by Alex.
But he was still on the run. He couldn’t access his bank accounts, and his health deteriorated. So in 2023, he travelled via Cuba to Russia, where he was granted asylum.
“I was dying because the medical facilities on our tiny island were inadequate,” he said.
“Cuba and Russia saved my life. The Russian government interviewed me many times and made me submit all the legal documents, including court cases from multiple countries. They investigated and decided to offer me protection. It’s very rare for Westerners to receive such protection.”
Hower speculates that he’s being pursued by the United States government in an attempt to turn him into an intelligence asset using his contacts in Russia and elsewhere. Al Jazeera was unable to independently verify these claims.
Hower is not the only international fugitive in Russia.
In February, Dutch footballer Quincy Promes was sentenced to six years’ imprisonment for his role in orchestrating two shipments of cocaine from Brazil into the Belgian port of Antwerp, totalling 1.3 tonnes.
Separately, the sports star was slapped with another prison term of 18 months for stabbing his cousin in the knee at a drunken party.
But so far, the convictions have only been handed down in absentia, since Promes spent the entire legal proceedings playing for Spartak Moscow as the best-scoring foreigner in Russian football history.
The exchange of suspected criminals between Russia and the European Union was once governed by the 1957 European Convention on Extradition, and in the past, Moscow granted such requests.
In 2013, Vitalie Proca, a gangland hitman from Moldova suspected of being behind shootings in London and Bucharest, was handcuffed in Moscow and put on a plane to stand trial in Romania.
In 2016, though it had no formal extradition treaty with Washington, Moscow deported suspected cyber scammer Joshua Samuel Aaron back to the US, where he was immediately arrested upon landing.
Crucially, neither of these individuals held Russian passports at the time of their handover.
Like other countries, including France and Lebanon, Russia’s constitution bars it from extraditing its own citizens.
In 2007, Moscow refused to surrender Andrei Lugovoi, an ex-KGB agent accused of fatally poisoning dissident Alexander Litvinenko in London.
Ukrainian-born businessman Semion Mogilevich, believed to reside in Moscow, is similarly immune to extradition despite once occupying a place on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list for an alleged high-value stock exchange fraud. Mogilevich has since been removed from the Top Ten, but is still sought by the FBI.
However, foreign-born fugitives may lose this coveted status if they cause headaches for the authorities.
Fearing a gang war, in 2018 the Russian Ministry of the Interior deprived Tariel Oniani, a crime lord of Georgian origin, of his citizenship on the grounds that he acquired it dishonestly and extradited him to Spain, where he was jailed on organised crime charges.
But since Russia’s February 2022 invasion of Ukraine, all such cooperation with its westward neighbours practically ceased.
“What has changed is that most international treaties do not work,” said a Russian human rights lawyer who specialises in extradition cases and requested not to be named.
“Extradition to unfriendly countries is not carried out, especially if those being extradited express loyalty to the current Russian government. And they [fugitives] can feel safe as long as they do not become a bargaining chip [between governments].”
The stonewalling goes both ways.
Last year, Russia complained that more than 100 of its extradition requests to EU countries in 2022-23 had been denied.
In turn, Russia has been accused of abusing Interpol’s Red Notice system to persecute Kremlin critics or those who’ve fallen afoul of powerful figures.
Last year, an Italian court ordered the police to immediately release a Belarusian woman arrested on Moscow’s behalf over a narcotics case. The woman claimed to be a victim of political persecution and the court accepted her claim, even without any evidence, exemplifying the lack of trust in Russia’s judicial system.
Other countries, such as the United Kingdom, have similarly signalled they would not deliver fugitives to Russia.
But according to Ben Keith, a British barrister who specialises in extradition cases, not much has changed on that front for decades.
“We’ve cooperated with the Russians in the sense that we’ve heard all their requests, but there’s only been one successful extradition to Russia and that was actually a client of mine, in 2017, for a simple robbery in Irkutsk,” Keith told Al Jazeera.
“And that’s because the majority of requests the Russians send through Interpol are politically motivated … corporate raiding, things like that, or because their prison conditions are simply horrendous. They’ve not done anything about that for 20 years.”
Keith conceded there was a risk of harbouring dangerous criminals, “but on the other hand, you don’t want someone imprisoned over false accusations”.
On March 1, Promes, the footballer, was arrested for an alleged hit-and-run in Dubai, where he trains as a privileged resident. Dutch authorities are reportedly likely to take advantage of his predicament to push for repatriation.
Hower, however, feels safe.
“They gave me asylum and they’ve never given anyone up that had asylum, and everyone that they gave up wanted to go anyways,” he said.
“I’m getting all the medical care I need. Especially considering I was dying there [in Saint Kitts] and in great pain, it’s a huge relief. I’m in St Petersburg, my favourite city in the world. Living in Russia is awesome.”

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