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US judge refuses to halt extradition of Lithuanian ex-judge

By MICHAEL TARM
AP Legal Affairs Writer

CHICAGO (AP) - A former Lithuanian lawmaker appeared close to fainting in a Chicago federal courtroom Thursday as a judge refused to halt her extradition to her homeland, where she faces charges stemming from her claims about the existence of a ring of influential pedophiles.

Lawyers for Neringa Venckiene, 47, said they would immediately appeal the decision to the 7th U.S. District Court of Appeals. That likely means Venckiene won't be forced on a plane back to Lithuania for at least several weeks.

Venckiene was a central figure in a scandal that gripped and divided Lithuanians before she fled to Chicago in 2013 as prosecutors prepared charges. Also a former judge, Venckiene is viewed by some Lithuanians as a heroine for exposing a seedy criminal network, but others see her as a manipulator who fabricated the pedophilia claims.

As it became clear the ruling wasn't going her way Thursday in U.S. District Court, Venckiene - standing in orange jail garb - appeared near to collapsing and had to be helped to a seat. When the judge asked if she wanted a break, Venckiene said: "No, no." But the judge recessed for five minutes anyway, as Venckiene drank water and dabbed her face with a tissue.

Venckiene told The Associated Press in an interview from her high-rise jail in Chicago earlier this year that she feared shadowy figures she upset with her accusations about a pedophilia ring and corruption in Lithuania could kill her if she is extradited.

"The judge pretty much signed my mom's death sentence," her 19-year-old son, Karolis, told The Chicago Tribune on Thursday. He said he was convinced she couldn't get a fair trial in Lithuania and that judges would impose a tough sentence if she is found guilty.

The charges she faces in Lithuania include reporting a false crime; disobeying an order to relinquish custody of her 4-year-old niece, whom she alleges was one of the pedophile ring's victims; and hitting an officer as dozens of police pried the girl from her arms in a raid.

Judge Virginia Kendall spent nearly an hour reading her written 35-page ruling aloud in a case she portrayed as novel and complex. She said her power to halt or even delay an extradition after the U.S. State Department has already signed off on it - as it has in Venckiene's case - is limited.

Kendall accepted arguments by government attorneys that the U.S. is obliged to send Venckiene back to Lithuania in line with a bilateral extradition treaty, including to help ensure other countries extradite suspects wanted in the United States.

"It is ... vital to the very concept behind mutual legal assistance treaties ... to facilitate cooperation between nations in order to protect the sovereignty of each," Kendall said. She added that the "hardship" of extradition "is lessened by the fact that she still may defend herself before Lithuanian courts."

Venckiene said the charges are politically motivated and she has repeatedly warned she could be killed if sent back to Lithuania. But assessing whether either claim was plausible, Kendall said, was also entirely up to the State Department under U.S. law and it hadn't deemed the claims credible.

Venckiene had lived in the Chicago suburb of Crystal Lake with her son, and worked as a florist. She had documents allowing her to live and work legally in the U.S. but turned herself in in February after learning American authorities were seeking her arrest.

___

Follow Michael Tarm on Twitter at https://twitter.com/mtarm

Copyright 2018 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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