Ground Zero Fugitive Fights Extradition-- the strange case of Kurt Sonnenfeld
Ground Zero Fugitive Fights Extradition -- Buenos Aires Herald article regarding the strange case of Kurt Sonnenfeld
GROUND ZERO FUGITIVE FIGHTS EXTRADITION
Buenos Aires Herald, Tuesday, April 11, 2006
By Guillermo Háskel, Herald staff
“The US authorities are trying to extradite me under false pretences.”
The man speaking to the Herald in a bar in Barracas, on the south side of Buenos Aires, is US citizen Kurt Sonnenfeld, 42, one of only two videographers allowed to record rescue work at New York’s Ground Zero site after the terror attacks of September 11, 2001.
The remark is his sole response when asked if he believes the harassment that he and pregnant Argentine wife Paula claim to have suffered in Argentina may have to do with his work for the US government at the Twin Towers site and, in the late ’90s, at Sarin gas warhead bunkers across the US.
Sonnenfeld’s case resurfaced recently in an extensive report on US TV’s Channel Two programme, Informe Central.
A court in Denver, Colorado, wants to try him on charges that in 2002 he killed his first wife — Sonnenfeld says she took her own life. He was jailed for several months in Denver and one day before his trial a judge dismissed the charges at the request of a prosecutor. He was freed in June 2002.
He says police “tortured” him and has accused them openly in the media. As a result, he now says, he started to be persecuted.
He arrived in Argentina in February 2003 for a month’s holiday. The uncle of a US friend lent him a flat in the coastal city of San Bernardo where he met Paula — they married in April 2003. Sonnenfeld claims that in San Bernardo he was followed in the street. The couple say they would also be photographed and harassed on occasions, sometimes by the same individual at different sites. Paula, who was present during the interview, is claimed to have miscarried in January of this year, suffering stress as a result of being harassed.
They went to the US Embassy to ask for a visa for Paula to travel to the US with her husband. But the couple claim the embassy treated her “cruelly.” They have since decided to extend their stay in Argentina and Sonnenfeld has had all his belongings shipped here, including the Ground Zero footage he had kept.
In August 2004, an Argentine federal police officer knocked at the door of their Barracas home asking whether Sonnenfeld could help him with a camera. When Paula’s father opened the door, Sonnenfeld walked out and was arrested by several Interpol officers at the request of Denver’s District Attorney Bill Ritter — who is now running for governor. Ritter had refiled the charges against the cameraman, alleging new evidence had been produced. But no mention of the initial dismissal of charges was made, Sonnenfeld says. He contends that the alleged new evidence is a fraud, and based on statements by two convicts who claimed that while in jail he confessed to killing his wife. “That is a lie. They are saying so in exchange for leniency,” he states.
His arrest was ordered by an Argentine judge who, however, refused to seize his property as requested by the US. A second judge rejected his extradition arguing that the US authorities had failed to provide enough guarantee that if extradited and found guilty, Sonnenfeld would not be executed. The case is now in the hands of the Supreme Court.
How the nightmare began
Sonnenfeld worked under contract for the US government’s Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) for several years. He worked at the World Trade Center for about five weeks with full access to underground searches. There was no restriction on filming, other than not showing bodies, or firemen in tears. Sonnenfeld says no documents were signed whereby ownership of the images could have gone to the US government, and that he was requested to edit the material for a memorial (following previous disasters he had acted as a government spokesman).
Sonnenfeld says that in the early hours of January 1, 2002, as he was at home with his wife Nancy, 36, he heard a gunshot and found that she had fatally wounded herself with a gun they had bought. According to Sonnenfeld, she had made previous suicide attempts and there was a record of suicide in her family. She had left a note and referred to taking her own life in her diary. She died a few hours later the same day.
He says that he called the police, but contends the media and police reported that he had refused to open the door. “I didn’t have the keys. They had to smash a window to come in. I even helped them in by moving furniture. “Police beat me and at the precinct one of them suffocated me and another forced me to inhale something I think may have been pepper,” he says.
The next day, the media gathered in front of the precinct.
“Police started lying to hide my injuries suffered during three beatings in jail. They said my wife was shot in the back of the head or in her chest. There is clear evidence that she shot herself behind the temple. Paraffin tests showed residue of gunpowder in her hand and none on mine and the gun had her fingerprints and not mine.
“I was kept in solitary confinement with no water and no windows. The toilet was a hole in the middle of the floor. It had to be flushed from outside. They flushed it often for fun, as that flooded the room.” Sonnenfeld also claims that police hid and tampered with evidence, ignored the suicide note and dismissed his request for a polygraph test.
He accuses one named Denver detective of seeking to destroy his reputation and feeding the press false information, adding that the detective had contradicted assertions that he made during an earlier court hearing.
“Separately, federal authorities asked a co-worker about my tapes and he said that he believed that I had handed them over to the authorities in New York, but actually I had stored them in a make-up box in a closet.”
After a preliminary hearing, Deputy District Attorney Michelle Ann Amico said that she would dismiss the charges, which was done in June 2002.
Once freed, Sonnenfeld’s criticisms of police gained wide coverage. He also sued police for 20 million dollars for wrongful arrest and assault. He says that when he went home from prison, his computer was missing.
He says he started to be harassed in various ways: lightbulbs at his home would be found unscrewed, locks unlocked, and he would be followed and photographed despite taking refuge at friends’ homes in other cities and states. He then travelled to Argentina but the harassment did not cease. To support his assertions, he provides pictures showing a man who allegedly taking pictures of him in Puerto Madero. He also shows a picture of a message sent to his cellphone that reads, “Watch what you are doing.” It was signed “any,” which Paula takes for “anybody.” Paula made copies of her husband’s Ground Zero footage and hid them.
In Argentina, Sonnenfeld has worked as a TV producer and even participated as an actor in a Burger King TV advertisement shot here and aired in the US. He offered Twin Towers footage to several local TV programmes for the third anniversary of the attack, “but nothing that I had not shown to other media before: dogs, machinery, etc.
“In August 2004, I delivered some demo to a TV producer. A week later, on August 31, Interpol arrested me. I find that extremely coincidental. A month before, I had gone to the embassy.”
Sonnenfeld spent seven months in Villa Devoto prison in Buenos Aires pending a US extradition request after the refiling of charges of first-degree murder that he dismisses as groundless.
Judge refuses extradition
Last March, Federal Judge Daniel Rafecas refused to grant extradition. He requested Colorado state assurances that if extradited, Sonnenfeld would not be executed, but only received a promise from Deputy Attorney Amico without the backing of Denver’s attorney general, the prosecutor general or Colorado’s governor. Rafecas fears that Amico could be replaced by another attorney having a different view, and he doesn’t know whether a jury or a judge could order the death penalty, even if not requested. The judge cites international jurisprudence, stating that the extended wait for a trial that can lead to the death penalty is degrading, and hence banned by Argentina’s Constitution.
Federal prosecutor Miguel Angel Osorio, representing the interests of the US, appealed and the case is now with the Supreme Court. A prosecutor’s source told the Herald that under Argentine law, Osorio was forced to appeal whether or not he shared Rafecas’ opinion.
Sonnenfeld said that there have been cases in which people were extradited and put to death in the US despite US government promises to the contrary.
He has resorted to several human rights groups and leaders, among them Argentina’s Adolfo Pérez Esquivel, winner of the Noble Peace Prize, who wrote to the Supreme Court urging respect for Sonnenfeld’s human rights.
Asked what he would do if the Supreme Court grants his extradition, Sonnenfeld, his eyes full of tears, said, “I won’t be able to survive it. I trust Argentina won’t send somebody into a situation where his human rights are violated.”
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