Russian arms dealer busted by U.S. agents in Hungary now out of jail after extradition

Direkt36 revealed a serious diplomatic conflict between the United States and Hungary late last year. In 2016, U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agents conducted a sting operation against two Russian arms dealers in Budapest, with the help of Hungarian authorities. However, the Orban government eventually decided to extradite the two men accused of serious crimes to Russia, instead of the U.S.

It seemed to be another sign that Viktor Orban was establishing an ever closer relationship with Vladimir Putin’s Russia. The Hungarian government was trying to downplay the significance of the events. The explanation given for Vladimir Lyubishin Sr. and Vladimir Lyubishin Jr.’s extradition was that Russian authorities had also initiated criminal proceedings against them. The Hungarian decision was based on the Lyubishin’s citizenship, the government said.

However, documents obtained by Direkt36 put the Hungarian government’s version of events in a new light. We have obtained the documents of both the Russian and the American extradition cases of the two arms dealers. These documents suggest that the  Russian criminal proceedings and investigation against the Lyubishins was partly fabricated at best. One odd coincidence is that Russian authorities started their proceedings against the two men after they were in a Hungarian prison for six months. Moreover, the Russian extradition request was essentially just a translation of the U.S.’s much earlier request, but full of errors. The Russian request was so dubious that even the Hungarian prosecutor assigned to the case strongly protested against it.

According to Direkt36’s sources Vladimir Lyubishin Jr. has already been released from prison. The older Lyubishin is still in pre-trial detention. Lyubishin’s Hungarian lawyer Robert Fridman, stated the family does not want to make a statement, Lyubishin Jr. is being held under a gag order and the elder Lyubishin could not be contacted.

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The U.S. Embassy in Budapest replied to our request for comments by saying that if the Lyubishins avoid justice, it will send a message to Russia and other foreign criminals that they can act with impunity in Hungary. Moscow’s Basmanny Court did not reply to our inquiries about Lyubishin Jr.’s release from pre-trial detention, nor did Hungary’s Ministry of Justice (IM).

Escaped from Moscow, hid in a Hungarian prison

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) was very meticulous in building up the operation against the Russian arms dealers according to the documents of the American extradition case we obtained.

U.S. authorities had been conducting surveillance against the Lyubishins for nine months. On July 6 2016, the U.S. asked for permission and assistance from Hungarian authorities to carry out covert operations on Hungarian soil. U.S. authorities anticipated bringing the Russians to the U.S. to face justice and their arrest warrant for the Lyubishins arrived in Hungary two days prior to the raid. They also told their Hungarian counterparts that the U.S. request for extradition would soon arrive as well.

Additionally, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) also requested that all evidence produced during the Hungarian phase of the investigation (bank information, secret surveillance materials, confiscated items, etc.) be handed over to them. Robert Fridman, the lawyer for the Lyubishins told Direkt36 that Hungarian authorities had fully complied with the request.

The two Russian arms dealers were apprehended on November 9, 2016 by the Hungarian Counter Terrorism Center (TEK). The Lyubishins did not agree to an extradition to the U.S. in a simplified procedure. They claimed that their case was just another example of the U.S. persecuting Russian citizens worldwide. The Hungarian court brushed aside these arguments and ruled in favor of the U.S. extradition request. The Lyubishins decided to apply for aslyum in Hungary because the U.S. extradition had to be suspended while that application was pending. In the U.S. the Lyubishins would face a long prison sentence, with a the maximum of life in prison.

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While the Lyubishins were waiting for the decision on their asylum application, something unexpected happened: Russia also indicated its demand for the extradition of the two arms dealers. The Russians claimed they were prosecuting the Lyubishins for multiple crimes. There had been no indication up until this point that the Lyubishnis were pending prosecution in Russia and their extradition request was full of errors.

The Lyubishins were arrested in November 2016 and were inmediately imprisoned in the Nagy Ignác Street prison in Budapest. Russian extradition documents obtained by Direkt36 show that the Lyubishins had already been in in prison for more than five months. In April 2017 a Russian investigative team suddenly realized that „Lyubishin V.V. escaped, hid, and was likely in the territory of the Republic of Hungary”. On April 19, a „search on a Federational level” was initiated for them.

Russian investigators initiated a search for the Lyubishins despite the fact the arms dealers had multiple meetings with the Russian consul while in prison. The consul from the Russian Embassy in Budapest was also present during the Hungarian court hearings, moreover, the Russian embassy forwarded the Lyubishins’ court documents to the Russian Ministry of Justice.

Documents detailing the Russian extradition request also show that Russian authorities were wrong about basic facts regarding the Lyubishins, or had no information at all. For example, Russian investigators described the crimes commited by the Lyubishins as follows: the Lyubishins and „other unidentified persons, in unidentified locations in unidentified time illegaly acquired unidentified types of firearms, weapons parts and ammunition…”. In comparison, the U.S. extradition request was accompanied by a summary of the full DEA investigation detailing location, time, and types of weapons. The U.S. documents clearly stated what weapons the Lyubishins wanted to sell and to whom.

Barely a week into the Russian investigation,the Russian Deputy Prosecutor General had already sent the extradition request to Hungary. A few days later, Russian Ambassador to Budapest Vladimir Sergeyev forwarded the request to Minister of Justice Laszlo Trocsanyi and Deputy Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs Zsolt Csutora. Sergeyev wrote in his letter to Csutora that it is “in line with the previous agreement,” but it is unclear what he was referring to. Direkt36 contacted the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (KKM), asking for information on the agreement between Sergeyev and Csutora, but we only received an answer after the publication of our article. KKM replied that the agreement was about forwarding the extradition request they received from Russia to the Hungarian Ministry of Justice.

Coordinates to the Americans, meaningless numbers to the Russians

Apparently, the Lyubishins themselves wanted to get to Moscow as soon as possible because they immediately agreed to a simplified procedure and to be extradited. According to a source with knowledge of the trial, the Hungarian translation of the Russian extradition documents was of such a poor quality the court could not use it and the trial was delayed.

This source claimed that the Russian extradition request was actually based on the “ctrl c, ctrl v” version of the American request. However, the Russian prosecutors were unable to understand several sections of the U.S. request. For example, the geographic coordinates of one of the crime sites in the U.S. document (“Tököl Air Base N472044 E0185851”) were copied incorrectly by the Russians as a meaningless number of digits (“Tököly Airport, No 472 44 E0185851”). The judge ordered the Russian authorities to correct the errors and resubmit the extradition request in Russian, and then the Hungarian court had it professionally translated it at its own expense.

The Russian investigators proved they were completely wrong about the realities of the case. As previously reported by Direkt36, the Lyubishins were set up as part of a sting operation of the DEA. Undercover DEA agents posed as Mexican drug cartel members with the cooperation of Hungarian authorities. According to the Russian extradition request, Russian investigators treated the U.S. DEA agents as the Lyubishins’ unidentified accomplices and as real criminals, who illegally bought live weapons from the two Russians: „In order to realize the will to sell weapons (…), in rented warehouses in the territory of the Republic of Hungary, they handed over to unidentified buyers the machine guns, grenade launchers, RPGs and unidentifiable types of missiles”. Russian investigators wrote this despite the fact that there were no live weapons in the warehouse, only deactivated guns as show-pieces and that no transaction happened.

The Russian request was so low quality that Hungarian prosecuter Lajos Korona suggested that the court dismiss it, according to the prosecutor’s motion obtained by Direkt36. Korona questioned the legitimacy of the Russian request before the court and stressed that the U.S. request arrived earlier. The Russian extradition request was a duplicative copy of the American one. The Hungarian prosecutor was also struck by the fact that the Russian extradition request for Lyubishin Sr. and the one for Lyubishin Jr. were identical.

The Hungarian prosecutor’s motion also cited a 1958 Hungarian-Soviet agreement, according to which “there is no place for extradition if the requested person committed the crime in the territory of the Contracting Party”, meaning that no one can be extradited to Russia due to crimes committed in Hungary. The prosecutor emphasized that Russian authorities solved this problem in quite a strange way, by referring to the crime site in Hungary as if it was in Russia: “The Russian side, in the document, clearly identified the town of Szigetszentmiklos as the place where the crime was committed. It makes no difference that, in both documents, the city of Szigetszentmiklos is noted as a location in Russia, as it was obviously just a typo.”

The prosecutor later explained to the court that because all the evidence gathered in the case was already in the United States the Lyubishins could not be convicted in Russia, due to a lack of evidence.

Despite all this, the Hungarian court accepted the Russian extradition request. According to Direkt36’s informations, the judge argued that he could only examine objective criteria, not subjective criteria such as whether the Russian authorities have any real evidence against the Lyubishins. When Direkt36 asked lawyer Robert Fridman about the objection regarding the location where the crime was committed, he told us that a later Hungarian-Russian agreement made this issue subject to judicial deliberations.

As both the American and Russian extradition requests were approved by the court, the Hungarian Minister of Justice had to decide between the two. Laszlo Trocsanyi supported the Russian request because of the Lyubishins’ Russian citizenship, according to an official statement.

In a cell with a Ukrainian sailor captured in the Kerch Strait

The Lyubishins were sent back to Russia on August 10, 2018, where they were put in pre-trial detention, which was extended every two months. However, under Russian law, the investigation had to be closed half a year after the extradition, on February 10, 2019. The Moscow court released Lyubishin Jr. from prison that same day and he was placed under house detention. He can now move freely within the borders of Moscow, Direkt36 was informed by Russian sources. No charges have been brought for the time being.

Lyubishin Jr. is married and has a small child. He spent one year and nine months in a Hungarian prison, then six months in Russian jail. His Hungarian lawyer, Fridman also told us that due to the circumstances of the Hungarian detention, his clients turned to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. For example, despite Lyubishin Jr. being diabetic, he did not always receive insulin in time and he was also not allowed to wear a cross in prison. He did not complain about the circumstance of his detention in Russia.

After the release of Lyubishin Jr., we contacted the U.S. Embassy in Budapest with our questions. In their reply, they wrote: „Any outcome in which the Lyubishins do not face real justice sends the message to criminals from Russia and elsewhere that they can act with impunity on Hungarian soil. […] Our position on this matter has not changed. The United States is disappointed in the Hungarian government’s decision to extradite the Lyubishins to Russia.” The U.S. Embassy also added, that „as we stated in this case previously, it is unclear whether the Lyubishins will face trial in Russia. We requested extradition to the United States to ensure that these accused arms traffickers would face justice.”

However, Lyubishin Sr. is still in prison. Last year, he was transferred to Lefortovo, known as the FSB prison until 2006, when it officialy became the prison for pre-trial detentions. He was put in Lefortovo so that the FSB (Federal Security Service, the KGB’s successor) could access him more conveniently for their weekly inerrogations. On June 14, 2017, the FSB launched another investigation against Lyubishin Sr. in a North Korea-related weapons smuggling case. Russia used this investigation as another reason to convince the Hungarian authorities to have the Lyubishins extradited to Moscow.

According to the documents obtained by Direkt36, the FSB claimed that begining in February 2016, Lyubishin and a business partner wanted to illegally transport Mig-29 fighter jet spare parts to North Korea. Some of the twenty million dollars worth of goods were allegedly found by the FSB in a Moscow garage and Lyubishin’s business partner made an incriminating testimony. However, this investigation is also dubious: several important actors in the story remained unknown to the Russian authorities.

A source with information on the background of the case told Direkt36 that Lyubishin Sr. had indeed done business with North Korea in previous times. Lyubishin claims that he has nothing to do with this arms deal. According to the source, the FSB’s charges against Lyubishin Sr. are based on an unsigned delivery note found next to the weapons and on a testimony from a former business partner who is now on bad terms with him. The source explained, that knowing how Russia’s judicial system works, „they have to buy their freedom with their assets. Russia helped them escape from Hungary, and now they have to pay that back”. Lyubishin Sr.’s pre-trial detention was extended again, now until April 10.

According to information from people close to the Lyubishins, the arms dealer is in a „decent cell” in Lefortovo and gets along well with his cellmate, who is one of the Ukrainian sailors captured in the Kerch Strait. However, because of the Ukrainians, the cells are constantly searched for contrabands, for example mobile phones, so that inmates cannot communicate. The same team of FSB investigators deals with the Ukrainian sailor’s case and Lyubishin Sr.’s.

Meanwhile, Hamit Nasirlioglu, the Turkish accomplice of the Lyubishins who was arrested in Montenegro and then extradited to the United States, has started his sentence in a federal prison in Pennsylvania. Nasirlioglu cooperated with U.S. authorities and pleaded guilty in New York’s Southern District last year. He has been sentenced to more than three years in prison, but his pre-trial detention will be counted towards the sentence, so he can be released in February 2020. However, Nasirlioglu was not charged with the most serious crime, the attempt to acquire anti-aircraft missiles. Only the Lyubishins would be charged for that, since they were negotiating with the DEA’s confidential sources about shooting down U.S. helicopters.

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  • Szabolcs Panyi

    Szabolcs graduated from Eötvös Loránd University where he studied Hungarian language and literature. Between 2013 and 2018, he was an editor and political reporter at At Arizona State University, he studied investigative journalism on a Fulbright Fellowship in 2017-2018. In the fall of 2018, he joined Direkt36, where he mainly works on stories related to national security and foreign policy. Meanwhile, he helped launch, a Warsaw-based cross-border investigative journalism initiative for the Visegrád region, where he is currently leading the Central Eastern European investigations. He received the Quality Journalism Award and the Transparency-Soma Award four times each, and he was also shortlisted for the European Press Prize in 2018 and 2021.