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Attempt to extradite online 'pirate' blocked

An Australian court rejects prosecutors' effort to bring the alleged ringleader of the DrinkorDie group to United States for trial.

An Australian judge on Wednesday rejected an attempt by U.S. prosecutors to extradite a man accused of helping lead a high-profile Internet piracy group.

U.S. federal attorneys want to bring Hew Raymond Griffiths, a 42-year-old computer programmer who lives in New South Wales, to the United States to face criminal copyright charges. If extradited and convicted of his alleged role in leading the DrinkorDie group, Griffiths would face up to 10 years in prison and $500,000 in fines.

The Australian magistrate blocked the move, ruling in part that the extradition attempt did not provide enough information about specific instances of Griffiths' alleged copyright infringement.

"It was a major problem for how he was being prosecuted," said Antony Townsden, the Legal Aid Commission solicitor who represented Griffiths. "I don't know how anyone would be able to represent themselves if they were to face such a general charge."

The ruling could be a significant setback for U.S. prosecutors, who have invested considerable resources into tracking down elements of DrinkorDie and other Net "warez" groups who distributed pirated versions of software, music and movies online, often before they were released commercially.

The U.S. and British governments have brought charges against other individuals targeted in the long-running piracy sweep dubbed "Operation Buccaneer," leading to more than 20 convictions and guilty pleas.

A representative for the U.S. Attorney's office in the eastern district of Virginia, which is leading the extradition proceedings, could not immediately be reached for comment.

According to the indictment, filed by U.S. Attorney Paul McNulty, Griffiths helped oversee DrinkorDie operations that resulted in the unauthorized distribution of copyrighted software, games, music and movies worth more than $50 million. The group was founded in Russia in 1993, the legal documents alleged, but was run by computer hackers worldwide.

Townsden said the U.S. government's attempts to extradite Griffiths, who did not have resources to defend himself overseas adequately, were unfair. All other defendants in the DrinkorDie cases have been charged in their home countries, he noted.

Australian authorities, acting on behalf of the United States, have 15 days to appeal the verdict to that country's federal courts.