WASHINGTON (AP) — The Russian father and son were in a Hungarian jail, charged in an elaborate plot to ship weapons to Mexican drug cartels and cocaine to the U.S. They found an American lawyer anticipating an inevitable extradition and trial in New York. But then the case took an unexpected turn.
Instead of being extradited to the U.S., Vladimir Lyubishin Jr. and Sr. were sent back to Russia, where, the State Department says, it's not clear if they will face trial.
"The United States believes that all the relevant factors favored extradition to the United States," the Justice Department told The Associated Press in a written response to questions. "And it appears that Russia sought the Lyubishins in order to protect them, not to prosecute them."
Last week, the State Department issued a rare public rebuke of Hungary, a NATO ally and member of the European Union, which has extradited people to the United States in the past.
"Hungary is a partner and friend of the United States, but this decision raises questions about Hungary's commitment to law enforcement cooperation," said spokeswoman Heather Nauert.
The case, first reported by the Hungarian investigative group Direkt36, is murky, involving a shadowy world of confidential informants and meetings in different countries. U.S. court documents allege that Vladimir Lyubishin Sr., who is in his mid-60s, and his son, who is in his mid-30s, entered negotiations in 2015 to sell machine guns, grenades and anti-aircraft missiles to three men they believed were representing Mexican drug cartels. The men said they wanted the armaments to protect their merchandise from American law enforcement. The Russian men were working with a Turkish business partner, Hamit Nasirlioglu.
Over more than a year of meetings, the men eventually agreed to provide the weapons and to ship at least 5 kilograms of cocaine to the U.S. as part of the deal. The representatives of the cartel turned out to be confidential sources working with the Drug Enforcement Administration, and the three men were charged in federal court in New York with drug and weapons offenses that carry lengthy prison terms. The Lyubishins could face 25 years in jail or more.
Nasirlioglu was arrested on Nov. 9, 2016, in Montenegro, and the Russian father and son were nabbed the same day in Hungary.
The Turkish defendant was extradited to the U.S. in in March 2017, and at a hearing a few days later, a federal prosecutor told a judge she was "optimistic" the Lyubishins would follow within the next couple of months. But she also cautioned that Moscow's involvement could complicate matters.
Two months later, Russia filed its own request for extradition.
Robert Fridman, a Hungarian-based lawyer for the Lyubishins, said his clients, who had lived in Hungary since the 1990s, believed they were legitimately selling decommissioned Hungarian military equipment weapons to buyers from Nicaragua who had the necessary import permits.
"They fell victim to a provocation by the agents of the DEA," Fridman said. "They were taking part in a legitimate business. They weren't offering anything illegal."
In August 2018, the Lyubishins were flown to Moscow and jailed pending investigation and trial, Fridman said.
Russian authorities did not respond to requests from the AP for comment.
Hungarian government spokesman Zoltan Kovacs defended the extradition decision, saying it was based on a court ruling and international agreements and stressed that the Lyubishins were arrested with the help of Hungary's law enforcement agents.
He did not explain why the Russian claim trumped the U.S. extradition request.
"The laws of Hungary apply to everyone in Hungary," he said on Twitter. Kovacs noted that Hungary filed nine extradition requests with U.S. authorities in recent years, and eight have been rejected.
Nasirlioglu pleaded guilty and was sentenced in November to just over three years in prison, with credit for time served in Montenegro awaiting extradition. Although the State Department said it's unclear if the Lyubishins would be tried at all in Russia, Fridman says his clients face seven years in prison, but are satisfied.
"It was a victory," he said. "They got the lesser of the two evils."
Some experts say geopolitics may have played a role. Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who has been in power since 2010, has championed a nationalist, anti-immigration agenda and has sought to cultivate closer ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Orban has also faced strong criticism from other EU member states for a variety of actions, including the recent closure of Central European University, which was founded by Hungarian-born philanthropist George Soros, an Orban opponent, and for sheltering former Macedonia Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski, who fled his country last month to evade a two-year prison term for corruption.
Orban was all but shunned under Barack Obama's presidency. The Trump administration has set out to re-engage Hungary and improve relations, but some critics question that approach.
"This is just an accumulating and mounting list of really big bilateral concerns," said Heather Conley, head of the Europe program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "The weight of this growing list is going to become something that will require Washington to reassess its current policy approach to Hungary."
Associated Press writers Mike Balsamo and Jim Mustian contributed to this report.
This story has been corrected to show the surname is Nasirlioglu, not Nasirilioglu, and the investigative group is Direkt36, not Direct36.