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Russia angry over extradition of suspected arms smuggler to U.S.

MOSCOW -- The Russian Foreign Ministry reacted angrily Wednesday to a Lithuanian court's decision to extradite a Russian citizen to the United States on charges of arms trafficking.

“We are seriously concerned with the U.S. side’s continuing practice of sending requests for extradition of Russian citizens to third countries,” Konstantin Dolgov, the Foreign Ministry’s human rights envoy, said in a statement published on the ministry’s website. He charged that the extradition request “brusquely ignores the corresponding legal procedure," including a 1999 treaty in which Russia and the United States promised to cooperate on criminal cases.

The case involves charges against suspected arms trader Dmitry Ustinov, 46, who is in custody in Lithuania. A regional court in Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital, approved a request from prosecutors Monday for his extradition on charges of shipping weapons that the United States prohibits from export.

Ustinov is alleged to have imported hundreds of thousands of prohibited weapons from the United States to Russia before was detained in May at Vilnius International Airport, where he allegedly was meeting with an unidentified buyer to discuss the purchase of military night-vision devices, the Baltic News Service reported.

He claimed he was being singled out because of his Russian citizenship. Russians have frequently complained of mistreatment in Lithuania, a former Soviet republic that nurses historical resentment against its larger neighbor to the east.

The case has illuminated the extent to which Russia, despite a large arms industry of its own, has become a weapons importer.

“The problems of the Russian defense industry are so dire nowadays that it can no longer manufacture many sophisticated weapons and military devices the national defense needs," said Alexander Golts, a military observer with Yezhednevny Zhurnal, an online publication. "The only way left to get them is to steal them from abroad, as most of them are prohibited for export.”

But another defense expert, Igor Korotchenko, said that if Ustinov violated U.S. export rules, he probably was acting as a private businessmen and his operations had nothing to do with the Russian government.

“As far as I know, Ustinov was purchasing optical electronics, but we don’t know in the interests of which structure or which country he was doing that,” said Korotchenko, editor of a defense journal. “He was buying small quantities, and that must have been his own private business.

“The Russian government doesn’t work like this when it needs to buy something abroad,” he added.

Dolgov, the envoy, said Russia considered extraterritorial arrests of its citizens “inadmissible.”

He expressed “deep regret” with the Vilnius court ruling and said Russia expected the decision to be reversed.

Extradition is a sensitive topic at the moment because of the case of National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden. The United States has been seeking his return from Russia, but President Vladimir Putin has been adamant that, while he is not eager for Snowden to stay in Russia, neither will he accede to U.S. demands that he be returned. The United States and Russia do not have an extradition treaty.

Ustinov was charged in Delaware on March 25. If extradited, he will be the second major arms smuggling suspect, after alleged “Merchant of Death” Victor Bout, to be tried in the United States in recent years.

Bout was extradited from Thailand to the United States in 2010 and sentenced to 25 years in prison in 2012.

Bout’s lawyers and Russian politicians called the trial and verdict politically motivated.

If convicted, Ustinov could get up to 20 years in prison. He remains in Lithuanian custody pending an appeal.

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sergei.loiko@latimes.com

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