U.S. Prosecutors Name Him a Assassin. To Ukraine He’s an Asylum Seeker.
MOSCOW – A court in Ukraine on Wednesday denied an extradition request for an American who served in the country’s right-wing paramilitary forces.
Craig A. Lang, an American Army veteran born in North Carolina, had been charged in the United States in connection with a double homicide in Florida, but his case drew attention to the risk that Americans may fight for right-wing groups in Ukraine and other global hot spots.
“Just as we don’t want them in the American military, we don’t want them to train to fight and kill,” said Heidi Beirich, director of the Global Project Against Hate and Extremism, in a telephone interview. “We have enough violence in our own backyard to be concerned.”
The US authorities have signaled that they want to focus on Ukrainian paramilitaries as one of the world’s hubs for right-wing extremists. This topic was high on the agenda this year after far-right groups demonstrated their potential for violence in the Capitol rampage.
The situation is very different in Ukraine, where right-wing militias are fighting on the government’s side in a war with Russia-backed separatists in which more than 13,000 people were killed.
Any suggestion that these groups are extremist could play into the hands of Russian propagandists who have tried to label the war as one of the Russian-speaking opponents of a “neo-fascist” government in Kiev. In fact, far-right parties win only a tiny fraction of the vote in Ukraine’s elections.
The Court of Appeal in the Ukrainian capital, Kiev, largely agreed with Mr Lang’s lawyers that despite being charged with murder in the United States, he was prosecuted for his military service in Ukraine under the Neutrality Act, a seldom-used law against fighting foreign wars. The court ruled that this gave him the right to be heard as an asylum seeker.
“There should be no discrimination against any group of people based on their race, religion or political or ideological views,” said Lang’s defense lawyer Dmitry Morgun in an interview.
While the extradition process ended, the ruling did not necessarily put Mr. Lang out of the reach of American law, his lawyers said, noting that if his asylum application fails, he could be deported to the United States. The US Attorney’s Office for the Middle District of Florida, which is prosecuting him for double homicide, did not immediately return a request for comment.
Mr Lang, 30, said in an interview at his lawyer’s office in Kiev that he does not hold right-wing extremist views. He said he washed out the U.S. Army after being absent without a vacation. He switched between odd jobs when he decided to go to Ukraine to help an ally, he said, on one thing that inspired him.
Though he left the military under a cloud, he was greeted by a prominent paramilitary group, the Right Sector, when he came to Ukraine in 2015 with few questions. When he got off a train in eastern Ukraine near the war zone, “someone gave me a rifle” right at the train station, he said in an interview, and the next morning he was sent to the front.
While fighting with the right-wing sector in Ukraine, according to the US Attorney’s Office for the Kansas District, he advised Jarrett W. Smith in fighting right-wing paramilitary groups in Ukraine. Mr. Smith, who also served in the U.S. Army, later pleaded guilty to charges of explosives.
The Kansas federal prosecutor said Mr Smith posted information about bombs and homemade napalm recipes on the Telegram social networking website while discussing plans to kill a Democratic Party politician and blow up a media company headquarters. The prosecution did not identify the media company, but CNN reported that it was the target.
“You may also be asked to kill certain people who fall into the bad grace of certain groups,” Mr Lang wrote to Mr Smith in 2016, according to Kansas court records, describing the service a Ukrainian right wing paramilitary might perform.
Then, back in the United States in 2018, Mr. Lang and an American veteran of the Ukrainian War, Alex J. Zwiefelhofer of Wisconsin, robbed and murdered a couple, according to the Florida federal prosecutor, in an attempt to raise money for travel south America where they hoped to join a right-wing paramilitary group fighting against the Venezuelan government.
Mr. Zwiefelhofer was arrested, but Mr. Lang moved back to Ukraine. Both were charged in 2019 in connection with the killings and for violating the Neutrality Act for their mercenary plans in Venezuela. Mr. Lang said in the interview that he was innocent of these allegations. Mr. Zwiefelhofer has not pleaded guilty.
Hate crime experts have long been alerting cross-border links to overseas military training on the far right.
Estimates of the number of Americans who fought on the government side in the Ukraine war range from the 20 cited by the Soufan Center, a non-partisan group that deals with extremism, to more than 100, volunteers said. Many stayed in Ukraine; Mr. Lang has a Ukrainian fiancee and a child.
The Ukraine trial sheds light on another little-known US law enforcement activity related to Ukraine. Mr. Lang’s lawyers provided affidavits from American trench war veterans in Ukraine that they would be questioned by the FBI upon their return.
“I’m really sad that I and others have become an enemy of the government simply because they want to help an ally,” said an American veteran, whose name was edited by the lawyers, on a file.
The lawyers cited searches, passport revocation and requests from the FBI for assistance from the Austrian authorities to interrogate an American veteran.
In the interview at his attorney’s office, when Mr Lang denied having right-wing extremist views, he claimed that he could still be targeted in the United States today on suspicion of doing so.
“I’m not a Nazi,” he said.
Maria Varenikova contributed to coverage from Kiev, Ukraine.