French court rules against extradition of Iranian engineer accused by US of export breach

PARIS (AP) — A French court rejected a high-profile extradition request from the United States on Wednesday, refusing to hand over an Iranian engineer accused of evading U.S. export controls to buy technology for military firms involved in Iran's nuclear program.

The case of Majid Kakavand, 37, showcased how the United States is doggedly going after people accused of obtaining technology or weapons for Iran's military, in many cases enlisting help from foreign countries.

Yet such cooperation is not simple, as the court ruling indicates. Kakavand's case dragged on for 14 months after his arrest as judges tried to determine if his business dealings violated French law as well as U.S. law — a necessary condition for extradition.

The three-judge panel decided they did not, justifying its decision in a 30-page document. A U.S. Department of Justice spokesman said authorities were "deeply disappointed."

The United States says Kakavand purchased American electronics over the Internet and disguised that their final destination was Iran by routing them through Malaysia, where he had set up a front company. It accused him of sending goods to a country under U.S. embargo.

Unlike the United States, France has no generalized embargo on Iran. Kakavand's lawyers accused the United States of trying to push France to enforce its embargo.

The ruling from the three-judge panel is "a message of caution about the independence of Europe, a clear message that you can't ask Europeans to apply laws that are not their own," Kakavand lawyer Diane Francois said.

In fluent English, Kakavand thanked the French justice system and said U.S. authorities "told some lies about me and they misled the French authorities." He planned to leave for his home in Iran immediately.

The case has sensitive diplomatic implications in three countries — especially in France, which has taken a tough stance on Iran's nuclear ambitions but nonetheless has business and oil interests there.

Iran has suggested Kakavand was a bargaining chip in the diplomatic tug-of-war over Clotilde Reiss, a young French academic who pleaded innocent to spying charges in Iran and is still awaiting a ruling. Kakavand and his lawyers deny any connection, and France says its justice system is independent.

The U.S. indictment accuses Kakavand of exporting goods to an embargoed country, money laundering, smuggling goods and other counts. It says Kakavand did not have required export licenses from the U.S. Treasury Department.

U.S. Department of Justice spokesman Dean Boyd said authorities believed there had been "sufficient evidence to support Mr. Kakavand's extradition." Boyd said the United States would continue to pursue him.

"Efforts to apprehend Kakavand are ongoing, and should he come into U.S. custody, he will stand trial for his alleged crimes," he said.

A French state prosecutor had opposed the extradition request, contesting the basic claim that products Kakavand bought could be used for military purposes.

The court's decision was had based in part on a report from France's General Directorate for Armaments. It said the technologies in question, including capacitors, inductors, resistors, sensors and connectors, were not considered "dual use" items having both commercial and military applications, as the United States claimed.

It also says the goods were sent to Iran Electronics Industries, or IEI, and Iran Communication Industries — both designated for restriction in 2008 by the United States for their role in Iran's nuclear and ballistic missile program, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.

The European Union placed restrictions on IEI in June 2008, but Kakavand's lawyers argued that the transactions at issue predated them.

Kakavand was taken into custody in March 2009 as he arrived in Paris for a vacation with his wife. He was held in La Sante prison until Aug. 26, then released on condition he stay in Paris.