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Vienna court to decide on Ukrainian oligarch's extradition to the US

Dmytro Firtash is indebted to his influential friends in Kyiv and Moscow for his fortune worth billions, which could now become his downfall. Vienna is set to decide on his extradition to the United States.

For over a year, Ukraine billionaire Dmytro Firtash has been stuck in the Austrian capital where he was arrested and soon after released on bail to await extradition proceedings.

On Thursday, a Vienna regional criminal court will decide if he can be extradited to the United States.

Firtash has been accused of corruption in the US. With the help of middlemen, he allegedly bribed Indian authorities for permission to extract titanium in the western part of the country. He is facing decades in prison and the confiscation of all of his assets.

In March, Firtash told Deutsche Welle in an interview that he suspects purely political motives for the criminal proceedings. "Many people don't want me to be in Ukraine - also because I am against the war in the eastern part of the country," he said.

Close ties to Moscow

The change of government in Kyiv and ex-president Viktor Yanukovych's flight to Russia led to Firtash' loss of benefactors and the related perks, including the lease for a titanium mine and the use of gas distribution networks for his energy corporation. He criticizes the way the new government in Kyiv is handling the crisis in eastern Ukraine. Despite the Crimean annexation and the war, Firtash is an advocate of dialogue with Russia.

Dmytro Firtasch Mitbesitzer von Rosukrenergo 2012

Firtash and then Ukraine president, Viktor Yanukovych, were good friends

He maintains close ties to leading politicians in Moscow. The billionaire does not make a secret of the fact that they helped him attain his wealth. Even after he was arrested in Vienna, Firtash' Russian friends did not forsake him.

A record-high bail of 125 million euros came from Russia. The billionaire Vasily Anisimov told DW that he had sent the money. He is certainly not a stranger to the Kremlin. Together with his friend, the oligarch Arkady Rotenberg, who is on the EU sanctions list, Anisimov promotes judo, Russian president Putin's favorite sport.

Agreements between Washington and Kyiv?

An arrest warrant for Firtash had already been issued in the summer of 2013, but was kept under wraps. The oligarch often visited Vienna, where his companies' Holdings Group DF and Ostchem headquarters are located. But he was not arrested until March 13, 2014, only a few days before the controversial Crimean referendum. Observers do not think that this was coincidental. They attribute it to the strained relations between the US and Russia.

Yuri Korchemkin, who works for the US consultancy firm East European Gas Analysis, believes that Firtash could be used as a means to pressure Moscow. The billionaire may even have to act as the chief witness in investigative proceedings against Putin and his coterie.

Between 2006 and 2009, Firtash, a Gazprom partner, controlled all the gas supplies to Ukraine. He shared the revenues with the Russian gas giant through RosUkrEnergo, the company founded for this purpose in the Swiss canton Zug. "Putin decides on the most important matters at Gazprom. The intermediary RosUkrEnergo could not have come into being without his approval," said Korchemkin to Deutsche Welle.

More than half of Gazprom shares have been deposited in American banks. Perhaps losses have been occurred due to the opaque gas business dealings with Ukraine. That could be a reason for the corruption proceedings in the US, says the expert.

Business deal with India fell through

Investigators in the USA analyzed hundreds of e-mails and tapped numerous phone calls. Transactions in an international network of over a hundred letter-box companies and accounts are to be used as evidence.

Ukraine Gas Kompresserstation in Chervonodonetsk

Firtash controlled all the gas supplies from Russia to Ukraine between 2006 and 2009

Firtash's business dealings in India began in 2006. The contract for the exploitation of large titanium deposits, which could generate up to half a billion dollars in revenue per year, was awarded to Firtash's letter-box company without official tendering procedures.

But nothing came of the titanium deal. In the past year, the government changed in the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh. The new government canceled the contract with Firtash.

"The contract was much more beneficial to Firtash than our state. We now want to put out an international invitation to tender," said K.V. Ramana, from the Andhra Pradesh Mineral Development Corporation, to DW.

Nervewracking situation for Firtash

There are hardly any legal obstacles to the extradition. "The grounds for suspicion must be sufficient," said Viennese court spokeswoman, Christina Salzbor. According to her, the court will also examine whether there are political motives for the US proceedings, as claimed by the defense.

All in all, Firtash has good chances of preventing his extradition to the US, says American lawyer Mike Koehler, who has worked on international corruption cases for years. It will not be easy for the US Department of Justice to enforce the extradition of Firtash," he said to DW. In similar cases, courts abroad declared the United States had no jurisdiction because the crime had not been committed in the US.

Meanwhile, Firtash himself invests generously in his defense. His legal team is made up of well-known lawyers, including the Austrian ex-Justice Minister Dieter Böhmdorfer and Lanny Davis, the White House's legal adviser under President Bill Clinton.

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