ZURICH/GENEVA (Reuters) - The United States has asked Switzerland to extradite seven FIFA officials arrested in an investigation into a global bribery scandal at soccer’s governing body, the Swiss Federal Office of Justice (FOJ) said on Thursday.
The move marks the start of a legal process expected to last several months during which the officials, who have been in jail since their detention on U.S. arrest warrants in May, will either keep fighting extradition to the United States or agree to go.
The arrests of the seven, including two then-members of FIFA’s executive committee, took place in a raid on a luxury Zurich hotel on May 27, two days before FIFA’s annual congress, pitching the organization into turmoil.
U.S. prosecutors say their investigation - which is running parallel to a separate Swiss inquiry - exposes complex money laundering schemes, millions of dollars in untaxed incomes and tens of millions in offshore accounts held by FIFA officials.
The seven were among 14 people charged in cases involving more than $150 million in bribes over a period of 24 years. Those being held in Switzerland include Jeffrey Webb, the former president of FIFA’s Americas confederation CONCACAF, and Eugenio Figueredo, who sat on the executive committee at the time of their arrest.
The FOJ said it would rule on the extradition requests within a few weeks, based on statutory hearings and the responses of the FIFA officials.
Edward O‘Callaghan, a New York-based lawyer representing Webb, declined to comment on the extradition request and a lawyer for Figueredo did not respond to requests for comment.
The U.S. Justice Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Under a bilateral treaty, U.S. authorities had up to 40 days to file an extradition request - by July 3. All seven of the officials had previously said they would contest extradition.
Proceedings under the treaty are relatively straightforward, even if the defendants have the right to appeal along the way, legal experts say.
If the FOJ orders extraditions, defendants may appeal to Switzerland’s Federal Criminal Court in Bellinzona.
The detainees were provisionally banned by FIFA’s own ethics committee following the arrests. FIFA has said that it is cooperating with the investigation.
A Swiss court last month rejected one official’s request to be released on bail, citing the risk he might flee.
Rafael Esquivel, 68, the former head of the Venezuelan Football Association, is among the seven FIFA executives held since the Zurich arrests.
At a news conference on Thursday, the interim head of the association said Esquivel’s lawyers had received the extradition request on Wednesday and were already moving to block it.
“The lawyers are going to try to seek that the Swiss tribunal not go forward with the extradition,” said Laureano Gonzalez.
“If that fails, we’ll appeal to the immediately higher instance that could extend Rafael Esquivel’s stay in Switzerland,” he added.
Esquivel is represented by a group of lawyers led by Gorka Villar, the son of Spanish Football Federation president and FIFA executive committee member Angel Maria Villar.
Additional reporting by David Ingram and Mica Rosenberg in New York and Diego Ore in Caracas; Editing by Mark Heinrich and Tom Brown