WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States has apologized to Russia for failing to give it prompt notice that a Russian citizen was in U.S. custody and blamed the error on an official hitting the wrong fax button, the U.S. State Department said on Thursday.
The notification went to Romania instead of Russia, said U.S. officials who spoke on condition of anonymity.
“We pressed the wrong button on the fax machine, to be brutally honest,” State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said in his daily briefing, declining to identify which country received the notice. “We have apologized to Russia.”
As part of a major drug bust, Liberian authorities took custody of Russian pilot Konstantin Yaroshenko in Liberia on May 28 and he was handed over to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency on May 30.
According to a federal indictment, Yaroshenko flew “thousand-kilogram” shipments of cocaine throughout South America, Africa and Europe. He has been charged with conspiracy to distribute cocaine, which carries a minimum sentence of ten years in prison and a maximum of life imprisonment.
Under standard diplomatic practice, countries typically provide prompt notification if they are holding a citizen of another nation. Diplomats are expected to have access to the prisoners and be able to communicate freely with them.
According to the Russian Embassy, a bilateral agreement dating to 1964 requires the United States to inform Russia when it is holding a Russian within “the shortest possible time.”
Crowley said the United States typically seeks to do so within 72 hours and only realized the notice had gone to the wrong country after that. He said he believed the United States had resolved the matter via an exchange of diplomatic notes.
Russia made no secret of its anger about the case, issuing an unusually harsh statement on Wednesday that accused the United States of violating international law as well as the 1964 U.S.-Soviet pact, which continues to apply to Russia.
“Effectively, we’re talking about a kidnapping of a Russian citizen from a third country,” the Russian foreign ministry said in a statement.
“In addition, U.S. authorities have not informed the Russian diplomatic missions about Yaroshenko’s detention. The actions of U.S. special services in the forcible and secret relocation of our citizen from Monrovia to New York could only be seen as open lawlessness,” it added.
A U.S. official who spoke on condition of anonymity said it was a U.S. Justice Department official who pushed the wrong button on the fax. Two U.S. officials said the notice went to Romania rather than Russia.
“While he was in our custody, we followed the rules of law and the Geneva Convention regulations regarding treatment of a defendant,” said spokesman Lawrence Payne of the DEA, a part of the Justice Department, declining further comment.
Additional reporting by Jeremy Pelofsky; editing by Todd Eastham