Ukrainian titanium mogul Firtash faces extradition to US

By William Clarke
Published: Wednesday, 26 June 2019

The owner of a Crimean titanium dioxide (TiO2) plant faces charges in the United States of planned bribery over an attempt to mine heavy mineral sands in India; he is also under scrutiny in Ukraine.

Ukrainian titanium magnate Dmytro Firtash has lost his legal fight to avoid extradition to the United States on bribery-related charges.

The highest court of Austria, where Firtash has been held since 2014, ruled that he can be extradited to the US to face charges related to a failed attempt to mine heavy mineral sands in India, although the final decision on Firtash’s extradition now lies with the Austrian justice minister. 

Firtash is the director of chemical conglomerate Group DF, which owns a wide range of titanium assets, and acts as a go-between for Russian gas company Gazprom.

Firtash is also under scrutiny in Ukraine regarding the operation of a TiO2 plant in Crimea amid allegations that the plant has been using ilmenite exported from another part of Ukraine.

Firtash has said the charges against him are politically motivated. Numerous media reports have linked Firtash to former Ukraine President Viktor Yanukovych and to Paul Manafort, the jailed former adviser to US President Donald Trump.

Indian mineral sands project

Firtash was one of six people indicted by a US grand jury in 2013 on charges of planning bribes to Indian government officials in order to secure access to titanium ores and other heavy mineral sands in the state of Andhra Pradesh.

Bothli Trade, part of Group DF, intended to mine ilmenite, rutile, zircon and other heavy minerals from coastal regions of Andhra Pradesh.

The project was supposed to supply an unnamed US company with access to the titanium sponge produced in India.

“Beginning in 2006, the defendants allegedly conspired to pay at least $18.5 million in bribes to secure licenses to mine minerals in the eastern coastal Indian state of Andhra Pradesh," according to the US Department of Justice.

The Andhra Pradesh government decided to scrap the project in 2014 and withdrew permission for the mines.

Firtash was arrested in Austria on the request of US authorities in 2014. Extradition was refused by an Austrian court in 2015, where Firtash has remained since under a $125 million bail bond.

“We are disappointed in today’s decision by the Austrian supreme court,” Firtash’s legal team said on Tuesday June 25. “In any event, nothing has changed regarding Firtash’s innocence and the absence of evidence that he is guilty of any crime.”

Crimean ilmenite imports

Group DF’s diverse business interests include ownership of Ukrainian Chemical Products, a sulfate route TiO2-pigment plant located in Crimea.

The company, previously known as Crimea Titan, has a nameplate capacity of 80,000 tonnes per year of titanium dioxide.

Yet, it has struggled to source ilmenite and water since Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula in 2014. Group DF had previously used ilmenite feedstock mined elsewhere in Ukraine.

The fact that the facility has continued to operate since 2014, despite its sourcing difficulties, has raised questions as to the current source of its ilmenite feedstock. The facility was closed for six weeks in August 2018 after a serious chemical leak. The leak meant the border between Ukraine and Crimea was temporarily closed, but also raised the question of where the plant’s ilmenite supply is sourced in Ukraine.

In September 2018, Ukraine’s Ministry of Economic Development and Trade hit back at local media claims that it had failed to impose sanctions on Firtash and that it was allowing the export of Ukraine-origin ilmenite to Crimea.

The ministry said it had already applied special sanctions to Ukrainian Chemical Products. But denied a proposal from the Military Prosecutor's Office of the Southern Region of Ukraine that requested additional measures be taken due to accusations that the company is exporting ore from Ukraine to the territory of Crimea.