Hard Stretch for Long Arm of US Law

The Martin Pang case and a new island haven for crooks show how tough it is to catch suspected fugitives outside the United States

THE Martin Pang manhunt has taken Seattle police from Los Angeles to the oak-paneled offices of the US Justice Department in Washington to the dank jails of Rio de Janeiro.

For a while, it looked as if Mr. Pang, a fugitive from Seattle, might go the way of Ronald Biggs, another famous runaway.

Biggs was one of the so-called Great Train Robbers, who fled England in 1965 after a $7.6 million heist, escaped extradition by fathering a Brazilian child, and has spent the intervening decades as a noted member of Brazilian society.

But after a year of cooling his heels in Brazil, Pang has been brought back to Seattle to stand trial. On March 8, he was arraigned on charges of murder and arson. Pang is accused of setting a warehouse fire (police suspect for insurance money) that killed four firefighters. He pleaded not guilty.

The Pang extradition case - and a separate new $10 million escape-hatch provided by the Seychelles - illustrates the need for persistence when it comes to bringing global fugitives to trial. Or, as Seattle authorities have learned, the long arm of US law has its limits.

The United States has bilateral extradition treaties with most nations around the world. Many countries are also signators to conventions that have extradition provisions. But international pacts don't always carry much weight.

Libya balks

Libya, for example, signed the Montreal Convention on Air Piracy. But the US is still unsuccessfully seeking the extradition, under the convention, of two Libyan men suspected of the 1988 bombing of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland.

Libya maintains that the convention grants them the right to determine the suspects' guilt or innocence before they are extradited. ''But the US wants to ignore these rules of the Convention,'' says Miami attorney Frank Rubino, who represents the bombing suspects.

Because of the various interpretations of the law, extraditing a suspect ''can take one day ... or it can drag on for 10 years,'' says Washington attorney Bruce Zagaris, who is also editor in chief of the International Law Enforcement Reporter.

While some nations have unofficially harbored suspected criminals for political reasons or in exchange for cash, last November, the Republic of Seychelles became the first to openly advertise itself as a haven for crooks.

Faced with the pending loss of the multimillion dollar rental income from a US Air Force tracking station, the island chain in the Indian Ocean is offering to grant immunity from ''all criminal proceedings'' and protection from extradition for anyone who invests $10 million in its economy.

At least four men suspected of extensive criminal activities in Europe have already accepted the offer and obtained citizenship in the Seychelles, says one US law enforcement officer.

Allowing criminals to ''rent a government'' says Jonathan Winer, US deputy assistant secretary of state for law enforcement and crime, ''is a kind of law that is bad not only for the Seychelles, but for the entire international community.''

''The Seychelles 'non-extradition' law certainly strikes new ground,'' observes Mr. Zagaris. ''If it proves to be a financial windfall for the Seychelles, other countries with depleting treasuries could follow suit and pass similar laws.''

The State Department and several European nations, including Britain and France, have made formal protests about the law, complaining to Seychelles President France-Albert Rene that its invitation will attract only embezzlers and other big-time crooks. ''This is exactly the kind of thing we fear,'' says one official at the State Department.

In response to the objections from the international community, the Seychelles ambassador to the United States, Marc Morengo, has distributed a memo stressing that anyone involved in crimes of ''violence and drug trafficking'' will not be admitted. The memo also states that all potential $10 million investors will be screened by a board run by President Rene.

Other escape clauses

While some crooks may find citizenship in the Seychelles an attractive offer, those with a murder charge hanging over their heads - as in Pang's case - can turn elsewhere to elude or at least delay the efforts of US law enforcement agencies.

Often, once on foreign soil, a another set of laws and judicial precedents comes into play.

In Pang's case, the US Justice and State Departments tried to have him extradited to stand trial for murder and arson. But the Brazilian Supreme Court ruled that Pang could return to the US to face arson - but not murder - charges. Under Brazilian law, a person can be prosecuted for murder in an arson case only if the fire was set with intent to kill.

The US has run into similar problems when trying to extradite murder suspects from Canada.

Canadian law forbids the extradition of suspects to another country if they could face the death penalty if convicted. In such cases, Canada, and other countries that have similar laws, often request written assurances that the death penalty will not be sought before allowing a suspect to be extradited.

Other countries constitutionally forbid the extradition of their citizens. For example, Colombia's Constitution, adopted in 1991, states that no Colombian can be extradited to another country. The constitutional clause remains a sore point in US-Colombian relations because the US has often sought the extradition of alleged Colombian drug traffickers to be tried in the United States.

Colombian President Ernesto Samper has said that the constitution has precedence over the 1979 extradition treaty Colombia signed with the US. ''The state should maintain the sovereignty and autonomy of the judiciary to judge our criminals,'' Mr. Samper has said. ''Lifting the constitutional prohibition would require more time than is allowed to bring those now incarcerated to trial.''

While Pang has been arraigned on four counts of murder, it's unclear whether he will actually stand trial for murder.

Brazilian connection

Because four firefighters lost their lives when warehouse flooring on which they were standing collapsed, Pang was indicted on first-degree murder charges under a Washington State felony statue that allows a defendant to be tried for murder, even if the victim was the indirect target of the crime. But there is no equivalent in Brazilian law and the Brazilian government may balk.

Pang's lawyer, John Henry Browne, says the charges are a violation of the extradition order from the Brazilian Supreme Court. A US State Department request to lift the restrictions on Pang's prosecution has been denied by Brazilian authorities.

The US is now requesting a clarification of the extradition order, which King County prosecutor Norm Maleng calls ''ambiguous.''

''At this point, we do not know what charges Martin Pang will face when he goes to trial. He was arraigned on all potential charges,'' said Mr. Maleng at a news conference after the arraignment. ''We will continue to press on all fronts, legal and diplomatic.''

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