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You Can't be Extradited for a Political Crime

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No country officially admits that it holds political prisoners. For instance, Cuba, Myanmar, Iran, and North Korea all deny imprisoning anyone for political crimes.

The reality, of course, is much different. For instance, Cuba acknowledges sentencing “counter-revolutionaries” for offenses such as “disseminating enemy propaganda” to long prison terms. The Cuban government may not want to admit these counter-revolutionaries are political prisoners, but the reality is that it is their opposition to the Castro regime that resulted in their incarceration.

Officially, the United States holds no political prisoners in its jails. It also denies ever having political prisoners. Unfortunately, the reality is again quite different.

A case in point is Texas oil and gas magnate Oscar Wyatt. In 2007, the Bush Justice Department indicted then 81 year old Wyatt and two Swiss business associates for conspiracy, wire fraud, violation of Iraq trade sanctions, and even unlawfully traveling to Iraq.

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The main charge against Wyatt was that he complied with a demand from former Iraqi dictator (and former U.S. ally) Saddam Hussein to pay surcharges on oil exported from Iraq in connection with the United Nations “Oil for Food” program. This program, in effect from 1995–2003, allowed Iraq to sell oil on the world market in exchange for food, medicine, and related items.

Throughout its existence, critics accused U.N. officials and others of helping to unlawfully divert oil-for-food revenues to the Iraqi government. A 2005 report from a commission headed by former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker concluded that approximately 2,000 firms paid bribes and surcharges. But Wyatt was the only high-profile person ever indicted. To avoid a long trial, Wyatt, suffering from ill-health, came to a plea agreement with prosecutors and served nine months in jail.

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Was Wyatt a political prisoner? He was never given the opportunity make that argument in a U.S. court. But had he fled to another country, he might have been able to do so. Under most extradition treaties, political crimes are not extraditable. Examples of political crimes are treason, espionage, sedition, and violating trade sanctions. For instance, the Soviet Union and later Russia refused to extradite Edward Lee Howard, an ex-CIA agent accused of espionage.

In Wyatt’s case, the charges against him were based on violations of the Iraq sanctions laws. These laws were arguably of a political nature and thus reputed violations might be considered a political crime. The conspiracy and wire fraud charges stemming from the reputed violations were by extension arguably political as well.

The important point is that in most countries, extradition is not automatic. In many if not most cases, a hearing is required with the person subject to extradition given the opportunity to argue his or her case.

Had Wyatt fled the United States, it would have been very difficult if not impossible to extradite him. Switzerland refused to extradite Wyatt’s two business associates because a Swiss magistrate concluded that the charges were political crimes and thus not covered by the U.S.-Swiss extradition treaty.

Incidentally, one of the weapons the United States uses if extradition fails is to revoke the passport of its political enemies. For instance, when chess champion Bobby Fisher played a chess match in Yugoslavia, in violation of an embargo against that country, the United States eventually revoked his passport. The solution to this problem, of course, is to have a second passport in hand, “just in case.” If you’re interested in learning how to obtain a second passport, click here.

November 19, 2010

Mark Nestmann is a journalist with more than 20 years of investigative experience and is a charter member of The Sovereign Society's Council of Experts. He has authored over a dozen books and many additional reports on wealth preservation, privacy and offshore investing. Mark serves as president of his own international consulting firm, The Nestmann Group, Ltd. The Nestmann Group provides international wealth preservation services for high-net worth individuals. Mark is an Associate Member of the American Bar Association (member of subcommittee on Foreign Activities of U.S. Taxpayers, Committee on Taxation) and member of the Society of Professional Journalists. In 2005, he was awarded a Masters of Laws (LL.M) degree in international tax law at the Vienna (Austria) University of Economics and Business Administration.