Austrian Court Rules For Extradition of Ex-Stavropol Mayor

An Austrian court has ruled in favor of the extradition of former Stavropol Mayor Dmitry Kuzmin, who fled Russia in 2007 amid corruption charges and has requested political asylum in Austria.

A local court in the Austrian town of Korneuburg ruled that Kuzmin can be extradited to Russia, where he faces charges of embezzlement and libel, Friedrich Kohl, a spokesman for local prosecutors, told The Moscow Times by telephone Thursday.

Kuzmin's lawyer immediately appealed Wednesday's ruling, and the case will now be sent to the Vienna Higher Court, Kohl said.

The criminal case against Kuzmin, which unfolded ahead of the State Duma elections in December 2007, has been called a smear campaign against a leader who had become too serious a threat in the Stavropol region to the pro-Kremlin party United Russia, whose election ticket was led by then-President Vladimir Putin.

In March 2007, Kuzmin led A Just Russia, a center-left, pro-Kremlin party created in 2006, to a rare victory in regional parliamentary elections over United Russia and the political machine of United Russia and Alexander Chernogorov, then the governor of Stavropol.

Kuzmin is one of dozens of mayors, the last directly elected officials in Russia, to face criminal prosecution in recent years.

Kuzmin has applied for political asylum in Austria, and if his request is granted extradition would be unlikely, Kohl said. He said, however, that questions of asylum are beyond the Austrian judiciary's competence.

"He claims that he is being politically persecuted in Russia, but the court ruled that the question of asylum should not directly affect [Wednesday's ruling]," Kohl said.

The court also dismissed Kuzmin's claim that documents provided by Russian authorities were not sufficient to justify extradition. "The court decided that the international arrest warrant is quite enough," Kohl said.

In November 2007, just weeks before the Duma elections, Kuzmin was removed from A Just Russia's ticket over purported campaign violations.

In a bizarre twist, a senior local police official announced during a televised news conference at the time that Nazi flags and medals had been found during a search of Kuzmin's office. The Nazi regalia were shown repeatedly on local television in the run-up to the elections.

Kuzmin fled the country shortly before the Duma elections, and a Stavropol court subsequently stripped him of his office and sanctioned his arrest in absentia.

Acting on an international arrest warrant, Austrian authorities in August detained Kuzmin at Vienna's Schwechat airport. He was later released on bail on the condition that he does not leave Austria, said Kohl of the Korneuburg prosecutor's office.

Following his arrest, the Investigative Committee issued a statement saying it would request Kuzmin's extradition. The politician has been charged on two counts of abuse of office, including the embezzlement of 19 million rubles ($807,000), as well as one count of libel, the committee said at the time. If convicted, he faces up to 10 years in prison.

Austria and Russia have both ratified a European extradition convention, greatly easing extraditions.

It could take weeks, if not months, until a Vienna court hears Kuzmin's appeal of Wednesday's ruling, Kohl said.

Kuzmin's lawyer in Austria could not be reached for comment Thursday.

Calls to the Stavropol branch of the Investigative Committee, which has been handling the case against Kuzmin, went unanswered Thursday. A woman who answered the phone at the committee's federal headquarters said no one was available to comment.