MOSCOW – A Ukrainian court on Wednesday rejected an extradition request for an American who served in the country’s right-wing paramilitary units, dealing a blow to American law enforcement agencies seeking to crack down on Americans traveling to Ukraine for gain combat experience with right-wing militias there.
American Army veteran Craig A. Lang from North Carolina had been charged in the United States with a double murder in Florida, but his case has drawn attention to the risk of Americans fighting for extreme right-wing groups in Ukraine. and other global hot spots.
“Just as we don’t want them in the US military, we don’t want them training to fight and kill” in foreign armies, said Heidi Beirich, director of the Global Project Against Hate and Extremism , during a telephone interview. “We have enough violence in our own backyard to be concerned about.”
US officials have indicated that they intend to focus on Ukrainian paramilitaries as one of the global hubs for right-wing extremists, an issue that rose to the top of the agenda this year after that far-right groups have demonstrated their potential for violence in the Capitol. riot.
But the issue is viewed differently in Ukraine, where right-wing militias are fighting alongside the government in a war with Russian-backed separatists that has killed more than 13,000 people.
Any suggestion that these groups are extremists runs the risk of playing into the hands of the Russian propagandists, who have tried to label the war as one of the Russian speakers resisting a “neo-fascist” government in Kiev. In fact, far-right parties only win a tiny fraction of the votes in Ukrainian elections.
The Court of Appeal in the Ukrainian capital of Kiev largely agreed with Mr Lang’s lawyers that despite the murder charge, he faced prosecution in the United States for his military service in Ukraine, under the Neutrality Act, a rarely used law against fighting in Ukraine. foreign wars. The court ruled that he was therefore entitled to a hearing as an asylum seeker.
“There should be no discrimination against a group of people on the basis of race, religion or political or ideological views,” Mr. Lang’s defense lawyer Dmitry Morgun said in an interview.
While ending the extradition process, the decision did not necessarily put Mr. Lang outside the reach of U.S. law, his lawyers said, stressing that he could be deported to the United States if his request to asylum was failing. The Central Florida District Attorney’s Office, which is prosecuting him for the double murder, did not immediately return a request for comment.
Mr Lang, 30, said in an interview in his lawyer’s office in Kiev that he did not have a far-right opinion. He said he left the US military after being absent without permission. He was drifting between odd jobs when he decided to travel to Ukraine to help an ally, he said, in a cause that inspired him.
Although he left the military under a cloud, he was greeted by a prominent paramilitary group, the Right Sector, upon his arrival in Ukraine in 2015, with few questions asked. While debarking a train in eastern Ukraine, near the war zone, “someone handed me a gun” right at the station, he said in the report. interview, and the next morning he was deployed to the front lines.
While battling with the right sector in Ukraine, according to the Kansas District Attorney’s Office, he mentored Jarrett W. Smith about fighting with far-right paramilitary groups in Ukraine. Mr. Smith, who also served in the US military, later pleaded guilty to explosives-related charges.
Kansas federal prosecutors said Mr Smith disseminated information about bombs and homemade napalm recipes on social networking site Telegram, while discussing plans to kill a Democratic Party politician and detonate the headquarters of a media company. The indictment did not identify the media company, but CNN said it was the target.
“You may also be asked to kill certain people who become in the bad favor of certain groups,” Mr. Lang wrote to Mr. Smith in 2016, according to documents filed in Kansas court, describing what service in a paramilitary Ukrainian right-wing could lead.
Then, back in the United States in 2018, according to federal prosecutors in Florida, Mr. Lang and another American war veteran from Ukraine, Alex J. Zwiefelhofer of Wisconsin, robbed and murdered a couple to raise funds. to travel to the south. America, where they hoped to join a right-wing paramilitary group fighting the Venezuelan government.
Mr. Zwiefelhofer was arrested, but Mr. Lang returned to Ukraine. Both were indicted in 2019 for the murders and for violating the neutrality law, for their plans to be mercenaries in Venezuela. Mr. Lang, during the interview, said he was innocent of the charges. Mr. Zwiefelhofer pleaded not guilty.
Hate crime specialists have long sounded alarm bells about transnational ties to military training overseas in the far right.
Estimates of the number of Americans who fought on the government side in the Ukraine War vary from the 20 cited by the Soufan Center, a non-partisan extremism research group, to more than 100, according to volunteers. Many remained in Ukraine; Mr. Lang has a Ukrainian fiancée and a child.
The legal process in Ukraine has brought to light another little-known activity by US law enforcement linked to Ukraine. Lawyers for Mr. Lang have presented affidavits from US veterans of the trench fighting in Ukraine about their questioning by the FBI upon their return home.
“I am truly saddened to feel that I and others have become an enemy of the government for simply wanting to help an ally,” said a US veteran, whose name has been redacted by lawyers, in a filing.
Lawyers cited searches, passport revocation and FBI requests for assistance to Austrian authorities in questioning a US veteran.
During the interview in his lawyer’s office, when Mr Lang denied having far-right views, he argued that he could still be targeted today in the United States because he suspected him.
“I am not a Nazi,” he said.
Maria Varenikova contributed reporting from Kiev, Ukraine.