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Murder-for-hire suspect busted in Madrid could face death penalty

US will have to convince Spain it won’t seek capital punishment in extradition hearing

Woman accused of paying $3 million to a hitman has been a fugitive since 2008

United States authorities could face an uphill battle with the Spanish High Court in the coming months in their efforts to seek the extradition of a US citizen facing murder-for-hire charges, which could see her facing the death penalty.

Áurea Vázquez Ríjos, who was arrested Sunday afternoon as she arrived at Madrid’s Barajas airport, was indicted in 2008 on federal charges of hiring a hitman to murder her wealthy husband, Canadian-born Adam Ahang, who was planning on divorcing her.

The 32-year-old Winnipeg native was beaten and stabbed to death on September 23, 2005, on a street in San Juan, Puerto Rico where he had moved to work in real estate development. Vázquez was slightly injured in the attack, which occurred as the couple was on their way to discuss the terms of their pending divorce.

During the investigation, she refused to cooperate with US authorities and later fled to Italy, where she lived in Florence and Venice and had twins from another man.

FBI agents, who have been trailing her since she fled the United States to avoid prosecution five years ago, alerted Spanish police and Interpol that she was traveling from Italy, a US prosecutor confirmed Monday.

FBI agents have been trailing her since she fled the United States to avoid prosecution five years ago

US investigators believe that the extradition proceedings before the Spanish High Court could take between six and nine months. Under the law, Spanish authorities have 72 hours to take her before a judge. Italy, where she had been living, had refused to extradite her because authorities believed that US prosecutors might seek the death penalty.

A 1971 extradition treaty signed between the United States and Spain also prohibits the extradition of any person “unless the requesting party provides such assurances as the requested party considers sufficient that the death penalty shall not be imposed, or if imposed, shall not be executed.”

The last executions in Spain occurred in September 1975 when five members of the ETA and FRAP terrorist groups died before firing squads in different cities after they were sentenced for the murder of several police officers.

Capital punishment in Spain is illegal under the 1978 Constitution, as well as throughout the rest of the European Union. But clauses differ in extradition treaties between individual EU nations and the United States concerning wanted suspects and the death penalty.

At a news conference on Monday in San Juan, US Attorney Rosa Emilia Rodríguez said that the charges outlined in the 2008 grand jury indictment only call for a maximum sentence of life imprisonment, but she declined to clarify whether prosecutors would seek death penalty certification from the US Justice Department.

“That information is confidential whether we are going or not going to file the death penalty,” Rodríguez said during the conference, which was live-streamed on the internet by a San Juan daily newspaper. “The indictment – the way it is written – does not contain any arguments for the death penalty. The way it is written, she is facing life in prison.”

A final decision to apply the death penalty will have to be made in Washington by the US attorney general.

The High Court judge would need a letter from the US Attorney’s Office agreeing that she should not face the death penalty"

Some legal experts believe that defense lawyers could argue that life imprisonment is on the same level as capital punishment, and could be used as an argument to prevent Vázquez from being extradited.

Douglas C. McNabb, an attorney and professor specializing in international law with offices in Washington and Houston, said that both Vázquez’s defense lawyer and the High Court judge would need a letter from the US Attorney’s Office agreeing that she should not face the death penalty if she is extradited. “An oral statement is not sufficient,” he said.

“The defense attorney representing the woman should fight the extradition. The advantage of doing so is that it may be possible that the extradition judge would agree not to extradite her on one or more of the charges. Under the ‘rule of specialty,’ the US would then be prohibited from prosecuting her on that charge (true whether the charge is dealing with murder or not),” McNabb told EL PAÍS via email.

Vázquez came to Madrid to take part in “a tour,” FBI spokesman Moises Quiñones told EL PAÍS. Rodríguez added at the news conference that it appeared that Vázquez “had grown more confident” and had traveled to other countries. She tried to enter Spain with her US passport.

At the time of her arrest, police in Puerto Rico also detained her sister and another man in connection with the case. When asked why it took so long to arrest the co-conspirators, the US attorney declined to answer.

Following the murder, local police arrested one suspect who was later convicted and sentenced to life, only to be released when the real killer was detained in 2008. Vázquez reportedly promised him $3 million if he carried out the murder, the charges state.

A defense attorney working on the case said that Vázquez left behind her two children at a daycare center in Italy. “The father of the twins appears not to care for them. So who is going to take care of them?”