Gusinsky Fight in Spain May Last Year

MADRID, Spain - A Spanish court battle over the extradition of Russian media magnate Vladimir Gusinsky could drag on for a year or more before a decision is finally made on his fate, Spanish government sources said Tuesday.

Officials defended Gusinsky's arrest last week in southern Spain, saying authorities had no reason to take political considerations into account when they acted on a warrant issued by Interpol.

Gusinsky, founder of Russia's only independent media group and a leading critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin, is wanted in his home country on fraud charges.

Gusinsky's lawyers have denied the charges and contend he is being singled out to silence his Media-Most empire. The U.S. government said the pursuit of Gusinsky posed a threat to Russian press independence.

"Every time Interpol issues a warrant, the Spanish official on duty at the time...does not question whether it is politically convenient or not to carry it out," one source told a group of Madrid-based foreign correspondents.

Spain and Russia are both signatories of Interpol and are obligated to act on its arrest orders, the source said.

Ralf Mutschke, Interpol's director for criminal activity, told the pan-European news channel EuroNews on Tuesday that he believed the arrest was valid. "This is not a political arrest," he said in an interview.

"We have article three of our constitution, which prohibits us from any engagements or activities which is related to any political, military, religious purposes of character, and Mr Gusinsky is charged in Russia with aggravated fraud, which is not a political issue," he said, speaking in English.

Spanish officials made clear that they expect a lengthy court fight.

Russian prosecutors have 40 days from the December 12 arrest to present a formal extradition request. The High Court must eventually rule on whether to send Gusinsky home. "That process could last a year or more," one Spanish source said.

If the court decides in favour of extradition, Spain's cabinet has the final say. The sources gave no indication whether the government had taken any position on the case.

The High Court's chief prosecutor said last week he saw nothing that would prevent Gusinsky's extradition. Prosecutors have opposed bail for Gusinsky, who was being held in a jail outside Madrid.