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Putin says Russia will ‘never’ extradite citizens accused by US

Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke during a massive rally in support of his presidential campaign at Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow on Saturday. Putin told NBC News in a weekend interview that Russia will not extradite any of the 13 Russians indicted by the United States for meddling in the 2016 election.Alexei Druzhinin, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Russia will ‘‘never’’ extradite any of the 13 Russians indicted by the United States for election-meddling, Russian President Vladimir Putin said, even as he insisted they didn’t act on behalf of his government.

Putin’s comments in an NBC News interview airing Sunday illustrated the long odds that the Russian operatives will ever appear in US court to answer charges of running a social media trolling and messaging operation to interfere in the 2016 presidential election.

The United States has no extradition treaty with Moscow and can’t compel it to hand over citizens, and a provision in Russia’s constitution prohibits extraditing its citizens to foreign countries.

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‘‘Never. Never. Russia does not extradite its citizens to anyone,’’ Putin said.

Even if the Russians never face justice in the United States, the sweeping indictment served the added purpose of increasing the public’s awareness about the elaborate foreign campaign to meddle in American democracy, legal analysts have said.

For years, the Justice Department has supported indicting foreigners in absentia as a way to shame them and make it harder for them to travel abroad.

The detailed, 37-page indictment from special counsel Robert Mueller last month alleges Russian operatives working for the Internet Research Agency used fake social media accounts and on-the-ground political organizing to exacerbate divisive political issues in the United States.

Posing as American activists, the operatives tried to conceal the effort’s Russian roots by purchasing space on US computer servers and using US e-mail providers.

Yet Putin argued his government has little to answer for until the United States provides ‘‘some materials, specifics, and data.’’

He said Russia would be ‘‘prepared to look at them and talk about it,’’ while repeating his government’s insistence that it had no role in directing the operatives to act against the United States.

‘‘I know that they do not represent the Russian state, the Russian authorities,’’ Putin said. ‘‘What they did specifically, I have no idea.’’

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Generally prosecutors’ evidence against defendants is not made public until trial, to preserve the presumption of innocence.

But some ethicists say the standard rules of conduct, keeping that evidence private until trial, might not apply in a case involving an attack on the foundation of democracy.

‘‘It’s so serious, it’s so core, the usual rules of explanation, the usual rules of transparency are going to have to be supplemented — it’s part of the repair of the damage being done to the institutions [of American democracy],’’ said Arthur Caplan, head of ethics at the New York University School of Medicine. ‘‘The public trust needs to be repaired.’’

In a flurry of activity last month, Mueller’s team negotiated a plea agreement with Rick Gates, Trump’s deputy campaign manager, announced a new series of charges against Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign manager, and revealed the indictments against the 13 Russians.

In recent weeks, Mueller’s investigators also have questioned George Nader, a Lebanese-American businessman, about possible attempts by the United Arab Emirates to buy political influence by directing money to support Trump during the campaign, The New York Times reported Sunday, citing people with knowledge of the discussions.

The investigators have also asked about Nader’s role in White House policy-making, those people said, suggesting that the special counsel investigation has broadened beyond Russian election meddling to include Emirati influence on the Trump administration.

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The focus on Nader could also prompt an examination of how money from multiple countries has flowed through and influenced Washington during the Trump era.

How much this line of inquiry is connected to Mueller’s original task of investigating contacts between Trump’s campaign and Russia is unclear.

Nader, 58, made frequent trips to the White House during the early months of the Trump administration, meeting with Steve Bannon and Jared Kushner to discuss US policy toward the Persian Gulf states in advance of Trump’s trip to Saudi Arabia in May 2017, according to people familiar with the meetings, the Times reported.

By some accounts, it was Bannon who pushed for him to gain access to White House policy makers. Others said Kushner backed him.

The Times made several unsuccessful attempts to reach Nader for comment. Nader’s lawyer also did not respond to messages seeking comment.