The pursuit of liberty and justice for all unites us as Americans — which is why I am so concerned that the United States is poised to extradite Judge Neringa Venckiene to face criminal charges in Lithuania for not returning a sexually exploited young girl to the alleged exploiter.
Even more concerning is that at least two Lithuanian judges directly involved in her case were recently jailed, along with politicians, as part of an ongoing bribery and corruption investigation rocking the Lithuanian judicial system, but Judge Venckiene’s extradition continues to move forward.
Judge Venckiene saw corruption in Lithuania’s judicial system firsthand in a child sexual exploitation case — that of her own 4-year-old niece who revealed she was being trafficked to her mother’s friends, including two government officials. After repeated requests for justice, Judge Venckiene saw Lithuania’s police and prosecutors conduct a sloppy, half-hearted investigation of the case. She saw court-ordered psychologists affirm and reaffirm that the girl’s claims were credible. She saw a Vilnius District Court order that the mother be indicted for her role in the exploitation.
And then she saw 240 police in riot gear descend on her house, break down the doors and violently return her screaming, terrified niece to the accused mother before a trial could take place. Once the key witness disappeared, the government official was acquitted and the mother never tried.
Judge Venckiene saw a new, anti-corruption political party form, inspired by her family’s ordeal. She was elected to parliament with powerful popular support. And then she saw the backlash — efforts by those in power to remove her parliamentary immunity and indict her. Even after she fled to the United States in 2013 and asked for political asylum, the charges continued to pile — 35 of them — ranging from “false statements” for petitioning the court on her niece’s behalf, to desecrating the national anthem and humiliating the court, to bruising an officer when her niece was violently taken. Her political asylum case will be heard in July — if she is not summarily extradited first.
Is Judge Venckiene the kind of “criminal” we extradite from the United States? One who risks everything to protect a child from sexual exploitation? One who fights corruption in a judicial system and runs for office to seek reforms?
Judge Venckiene is now seeing, through the bars of the federal prison in Chicago, a lack of due process in the country she looked to for justice and protection. U.S. federal attorneys are asking for her extradition to be expedited, fighting her request for a stay. U.S. federal attorneys are saying that the government corruption and child exploitation context of Judge Venckiene’s alleged crimes does not matter in an extradition proceeding; her side of the story is irrelevant. U.S. federal attorneys are arguing that only the secretary of State has the authority to say that Lithuania’s charges are politically motivated and to stop the extradition.
The secretary of State has not yet done so. In fact, the extradition was approved.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has received letters from dozens of current and former Lithuanian government officials, as well as former political prisoners, warning him that Lithuania’s charges are politically motivated. He has received evidence that the chairman of the Supreme Court of Lithuania prejudiced her case nationwide in 2012 by saying publicly that Judge Venckiene “is an abscess in the political system” and “the trouble of the whole state.” He has received a copy of an interview with the Lithuanian prosecutor in charge of the case, who admitted to removing charges from the extradition request so that it would not appear politically motivated — and who explained that new criminal charges could be added easily if Judge Venckiene is returned.
Instead of zealously pursuing the government officials who sexually exploited Judge Venckiene’s niece, the Lithuanian government and judicial system have targeted Judge Venckiene and her niece’s supporters. The child’s grandparents, a medical professional who came forward with evidence, journalists reporting on the case, neighbors, people who attended rallies on behalf of the child, and many others seeking justice for the girl have all been charged and tried for “false statements” and other alleged crimes.
Now the two accused government officials are both dead, as are the child’s father and other key witnesses. Lithuania’s Legal and Judiciary Committee found that the negligence had compromised the investigation against the public officials. And the Lithuanian jurisdictions where the case occurred are currently engulfed in a systemic judicial corruption scandal. The litany of missteps in this child-trafficking case cannot be corrected; in this case, justice is out of reach in Lithuania.
Whether the secretary of State sends Judge Venckiene back into the Lithuanian melee to face charges for protecting her niece or allows her to stay in the United States and finish her political asylum hearings is a decision that will define us a nation — I hope to be a nation of liberty and justice for all.
• Chris Smith, a Republican U.S. representative for New Jersey, is the ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Global Human Rights.