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Take a maverick California chief district judge, the former chief justice of India, and the foremost extradition expert in American academia. Add a millionaire defendant with shoulder-length hair, plus his mother and two aunts wearing identical platinum pants, jackets and leopard print flats. Drop them all in a San Francisco federal courtroom, and such was the latest chapter Tuesday in the prosecution of Stefan Wathne, international socialite and heir to the Wathne sportswear and accessory fortune. An Icelandic citizen, Wathne lived in New York and Moscow, but he was arrested for money laundering while traveling to India last year. After his arrest, Berkeley defense attorney Cristina Arguedas negotiated a deal with Assistant U.S. Attorney S. Waqar Hasib that provided for Wathne to voluntarily return to the United States. The government withdrew its formal extradition request, but Wathne preserved his right to challenge his removal in an American forum. Thus the central legal issue in U.S. District Chief Judge Vaughn Walker’s courtroom Tuesday was whether the indictment should be dismissed because, according to the defense, Wathne’s alleged crime was not illegal on the subcontinent when it was committed. Under Indian interpretations of extradition law, a removal cannot occur unless both countries have banned the conduct. Much of the hearing was, essentially, a contract dispute. According to prosecutors, the agreement did not allow the defense’s so-called “dual criminality” attack. But Walker pointed out that the deal preserved “any and all” defense challenges. “How do I escape the impression that the government is welshing on this agreement?” Walker said. Wathne’s money laundering was illegal in India at the time of his extradition, Hasib said, and that’s what matters under American law. The Justice Department never contemplated a dual criminality challenge. “Well, I always like to do things that are not contemplated by the government,” Walker said. “I know, your honor,” Hasib told the judge, who recently found the Bush administration’s warrantless wiretapping scheme illegal. However, Walker seemed disinclined to adopt the defense’s proposed remedy, i.e., tossing the entire indictment. If Wathne shouldn’t have been removed, Walker mused, then perhaps the defendant should just be returned to India, but with the American indictment still intact. “I don’t mind climbing out on a limb, but I need you to provide me with a limb to climb out on,” Walker told San Francisco solo Karen Snell, who argued for the defense as Arguedas looked on. Snell told Walker that Ninth Circuit precedent allowed him to dismiss the charges. “There’s a trunk and everything,” Snell said. Wathne’s family is well known in haute couture circles — his mother and two aunts are known as the “triplets” because of their tendency to wear identical outfits. But Northern District prosecutors accuse Wathne of laundering money on behalf of Leonard Pickard, who at one point worked as the assistant director of UCLA’s Drug Policy Analysis Program, according to court filings. Pickard also ran a side business: constructing an LSD factory in Kansas in an old missile silo. Pickard is currently serving two life terms. Wathne met Pickard through a mutual friend, who eventually ratted them out. According to defense filings, the government’s theory is that Pickard funded his own $140,000-a-year position at UCLA by giving the money to Wathne, who passed it through Russian businessmen, who in turn sent it to the university as “donations.” To bolster its extradition argument Tuesday, the defense supplied Yogesh Kumar Sabharwal, the former chief justice of India’s Supreme Court, along with that country’s former solicitor general. Both opined that Wathne’s conduct was not criminal under Indian law in the late 1990s, so Wathne would not have been extradited. The defense also produced Professor M. Cherif Bassiouni, president of DePaul University’s International Human Rights Law Institute. He said it would be fine for Walker to apply Indian law to resolve the extradition question. On cross-examination, Bassiouni acknowledged that it would be “totally anomalous” for a judge in a country like India to not only refuse to extradite someone, but then dismiss the indictment. Extradition was just one of the fights mounted by the defense. They also accused former Assistant U.S. Attorney Christopher Steskal of misconduct for not informing the grand jury that some of the evidence it received was based on an interrogation in Russia, where police torture is common. They produced Hoover Institution Russia expert David Satter, a Wall Street Journal editorial-page writer, to discuss Russians’ general fear of the police. Hasib, however, responded that there are zero allegations of abuse in this case and that Steskal had no obligation to tell the grand jury about the involvement of Russian authorities. The defense also mounted a speedy trial challenge, arguing that the time delay between Wathne’s indictment in 2005 and his arrest last year is inexcusable — especially since some of it resulted from the failure of the U.S. attorney’s office to reassign the case once Steskal departed for a Fenwick & West partnership. That personnel issue was immaterial, Hasib said. And given the lack of an extradition treaty between the United States and Russia, Hasib said, the government did its best to apprehend Wathne, taking steps like alerting Interpol. Walker took the matters under submission.

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