VILNIUS - The District Court of Vilnius ruled on Sept. 8 to extradite Igor Babenko, former executive of Menatep St. Petersburg Bank's affiliate unit, a subsidiary of the oil producer Yukos, to Russia. Babenko's lawyer said his client would appeal to the state's higher judicial institutions. Many politicians warned the court about the possibility of trumped-up charges against Babenko, given the Kremlin's drive to imprison top Yukos officials and dismantle the company. They suggested taking steps to slow down the ruling.
Russian prosecutors have accused Babenko, 55, of embezzling over 333 million rubles (100 million euros) while heading the bank. He was detained in Vilnius on July 1, one day after Lithuania received Russia's request to arrest and extradite him.
Babenko's lawyers insist that the case against their client is politically-motivated, since Babanko is part of the Kremlin's campaign to disassemble the financial industrial empire of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the former head of Yukos now serving a sentence.
Babenko also believes that Lithuanian intelligence services are following him because of his relation to Yukos.
"Some 50 legal persons belong to the branch of the bank that I operate, and I control a lot of information that is interesting to certain political-financial groups. It is just that this data is classified and I refuse to share it," Babenko told the court.
The court has been probing Babenko's case since Aug. 2, and was forced to call Russian institutions for additional case documents. Later, Vilnius judges said they had obtained sufficient evidence to prove that the suspect was involved in criminal activities while in Russia.
Based on the documents, the Vilnius court ruled there were no grounds to refuse Babenko's extradition.
"I respect Lithuania's lawyers, but I believe that they did not want to ruin mutual relations with Russia," Babenko said after the court hearing. "I'm sure Lithuania fears that Russia won't give someone away in the future to Lithuania."
"I find it difficult to understand the 'excellence' of the Prosecutor General Office. Even if Babenko is a criminal, he did not commit his crime in Lithuania, therefore his extradition is a question of international agreement," said a diplomat from an influential country.
"Perhaps it shouldn't be an eye for an eye, but Russia and Lithuania don't cooperate in this area at all. Russia didn't give away the criminals of Jan. 13 [massacre in Vilnius, 1991] or of Medininkai post [killing of seven Lithuanian border officers on Jul. 31, 1991]. And Russians only laugh at us regarding the assault against our border officer while on a train. It's strange that Lithuania's prosecutors didn't know this," the diplomat said.
President Valdas Adamkus also said that, during the extradition process, Lithuania missed the opportunity to remind Russia about such cases as Medininkai and Jan. 13.
Conservative MP Jurgis Razma wrote a letter of resentment to the Prosecutor General Office, demanding answers as to why the office took a pro-Russian standing and lacked the ability to defend state-level interests in this case.
"I believe you understand that positive ruling in this case was very important to Russia, so prosecutors had an opportunity to use this situation to push our decisions further in Russian legal institutions. I want to ask you if, prior to the decision about Babenko's extradition, there were any negotiations regarding the extradition of individuals now residing in Russia who were involved in the massacres of Jan. 13 and Medininkai?" the conservative wrote.
Meanwhile, the Lietuvos Zinios daily reported that Lithuania-born Babenko has considered seeking political asylum in the Baltic state.
"I think I have to stay in Lithuania because I was born here, my mother is buried here, there are a lot ties with my motherland. Also, I can speak and write Lithuanian. I have two hands and a head, which is perhaps not that empty after all 's I could live as all civilized people do," the former banker told the paper.
Babenko's attorney, however, did not confirm the information about the businessman's possible attempts to seek political asylum.