MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Zimbabwe has called for an American dentist who killed a lion that was lured out of a national park and caused international outrage to be extradited and face as-yet filed charges. But it isn’t clear whether Walter James Palmer, a 55-year-old from Minnesota, can be extradited or, if so, can fight having to go back to the African nation. Palmer has said he relied on his guides to ensure the hunt was legal.
Here are some details about the process and what could happen:
WHAT’S BEEN SAID?
A Cabinet member in Zimbabwe said Friday that the government has asked “the responsible authorities” to extradite Palmer so he can be “made accountable” in Cecil the lion’s death. The U.S. Embassy in Zimbabwe said Friday that it does not comment on extradition matters and the Zimbabwe Embassy in Washington said it had yet to receive instructions.
While a professional hunter and a farm owner have been arrested in the killing, Palmer has not been charged. That would be the key to set an extradition in motion — maybe.
WHAT ARE THE NEXT STEPS?
Any request for Palmer to return to Zimbabwe would go through the U.S. State Department, which would forward it to the Justice Department, or be sent directly to the Justice Department, according to Jens David Ohlin, who teaches international and criminal law at Cornell University in New York state.
After that, federal officials would have to decide whether it falls under the extradition treaty with Zimbabwe, which took effect in 2000.
“They have to determine whether or not the allegation constitutes a crime in Zimbabwe and also a crime in the United States,” Ohlin said
What the U.S. can’t do is determine Palmer’s guilt or innocence, said Stephen I. Vladeck, a law professor specializing in international affairs at American University in Washington, D.C.
Ohlin believes it would fall under the treaty. And that’s where it gets complicated.
WHAT COULD PREVENT AN EXTRADITION?
The U.S. hasn’t sent anyone to Zimbabwe since the treaty took effect and vice versa, according to a State Department official who was not authorized to address the issue by name and spoke on condition of anonymity.
Extraditions “inevitably come down to political and diplomatic considerations far more than they do legal ones,” Vladeck said.
There’s political tension between the two countries. The southern African country has blamed its economic woes on U.S. sanctions against President Robert Mugabe and close associates, though many commentators have attributed Zimbabwe’s economic decline to mismanagement. Washington imposed the penalties on Zimbabwe because of human rights concerns. More broadly, Mugabe has long railed against what he calls Western meddling in Africa, saying it is an extension of the colonial rule of the past.
Ohlin said the U.S. could analyze the justice system in Zimbabwe to determine whether it’s fair and whether the prisons there are up to human rights standards. The Associated Press has reported that prisoners in Zimbabwe rioted earlier this year because they hadn’t been served meat in three years, and that the food woes were evidence of a debilitating economic downturn that has left the government struggling to meet obligations.
If prison conditions are “unduly harsh,” the U.S. could deny extradition, Ohlin said.
Plus, Vladeck noted about any extradition, “There might be concerns about the precedent it sets for U.S. tourists overseas.”
IF THE U.S. ALLOWS EXTRADITION, WHAT CAN THE DENTIST DO?
Palmer could waive extradition or his attorney could contest it, arguing that extradition does not fall under the treaty, Ohlin said. At that point, the defense could ask the judge to resolve the issue, which could take months, Ohlin said.
“If he contests extradition,” Ohlin said, “I would think he would probably lose his case, but there are a lot of creative arguments his lawyers could make.”
While Palmer’s case is high profile, Vladeck said, “the actual legal questions are actually routine and mundane.”