CHICAGO (AP) — A lawyer for a former Lithuanian judge and parliament member jailed in Chicago said Monday that a new court ruling could be a fatal blow to his client's long fight against extradition to Lithuania, saying she could be sent back any day now to the Baltic Sea nation where she says she exposed a network of influential pedophiles.
Neringa Venckiene, 48, had worked as a nursing home aide and florist in the Chicago suburb of Crystal Lake with her now-20-year-old son, Karolis, before being jailed. The charges she faces in Lithuania include disobeying an order to relinquish custody of her 4-year-old niece, whom she alleges was one of the ring's victims. She also is accused of hitting an officer as dozens of police pried the girl from her arms in a raid.
Venckiene, who led an anti-pedophilia movement in Lithuania that swept her and six others into the country's parliament in 2012, told The Associated Press from jail last year that the charges are politically motivated and that shadowy figures she upset with her accusations could kill her if she's returned.
Her attorney, Michael Monico, told the AP Monday that Venckiene was devastated when he went to see her at a Chicago jail where she's been detained for the past 18 months to break the news about last week's ruling.
"It was the saddest thing I've had to do," he said.
The 36-page written ruling from the Chicago-based 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said Venckiene would have "her day in court in Lithuania." It said it was a U.S. court's role to ensure terms of the extradition treaty between the U.S. and Lithuania were complied with — not to decide if evidence points to guilt or innocence.
"Venckiene will still have an opportunity to challenge the charges against her," the ruling said. "That opportunity must come in the Lithuanian justice system."
Venckiene was a central figure in a scandal that gripped and divided her nation of 3 million before she went on the lam in 2013, as prosecutors prepared charges. She is viewed by some Lithuanians a heroine for exposing a seedy criminal network and by others as a manipulator who fabricated the pedophilia claims.
The events that engulfed Venckiene included the slaying of another judge accused of molesting her niece; and the death of Venckiene's brother who leveled the initial child-abuse accusation and was a suspect in the murder.
Venckiene based her allegations about a pedophile network, in part, on a 2009 video in which her niece graphically describes several men sexually abusing her. But authorities said they weren't able to find evidence corroborating the girl's claims. Venckiene says neither she nor her family has heard from the niece since police seized her and returned her to her mother in 2012.
The unanimous 7th Circuit ruling by a three-judge panel also said the U.S. had a wider interest in fulfilling their treaty obligations with countries like Lithuania, a member of NATO and the European Union.
"If other countries lose confidence that the United States will abide by its treaties, the United States risks losing the ability to obtain the extraditions of people who commit crimes here and flee to other countries," it said.
Venckiene's lawyers could ask the Supreme Court to intervene, but the high court rarely takes on such issues, especial when neither the 7th Circuit nor the U.S. district court suggested any of the legal questions were close calls.
The U.S. attorney's office in Chicago, which is overseeing Venckiene's case, had indicated it would wait until the 7th Circuit ruled on her appeal before authorities forced her on a plane to Lithuania. The prosecutors' office declined any comment on when that could happen now that the 7th Circuit has ruled.
Venckiene had documents allowing her to live and work legally in the U.S. But she turned herself in on Feb. 13, 2018, after learning American authorities were seeking her arrest.
She had hoped the U.S. Department of State would agree to step in and deem the charges politically driven, a designation that would have halted the extradition. But that would have entailed criticizing a NATO member, and on April 20, 2018, the State Department declined to intervene and OKed her extradition.
The 7th Circuit rejected the assertion in Venckiene's appeal that she qualified for a U.S. exemption from extradition on the grounds that the Lithuanian charges had "a political dimension ... in the colloquial sense" but didn't qualify as political by criteria spelled out in U.S. extradition law, including that the charges were brought amidst violent rebellion.
While it would seem a long shot, Monico said he still hoped the State Department might reconsider and decide to let Venckiene remain in the U.S. He also said he hoped Lithuania's newly sworn-in president, former banker Gitanas Nauseda, would rescind the country's request for Venckiene's extradition.
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