“Chris will no longer have to fight for his freedom from a jail cell, but the battle in the courtroom is just beginning,” Ahn’s lawyer, Naeun Rim, said in a statement.
“This case continues to unnecessarily endanger the life of an American veteran based on the statements of North Korean officials who lack all credibility. While we will continue to challenge the extradition vigorously in court, the United States government has the power to end this whenever it wants.”
The release of Ahn, who must wear an ankle monitor ahead of the extradition trial, is the first positive legal development for a Free Joseon member following revelations of the group’s responsibility in the unprecedented raid.
“It’s a sea change in the legal proceedings and public narrative out there,” said Sung-Yoon Lee, a North Korea expert at Tufts University who has been following the case. “Most people were convinced they had broken in and used some egregious violence and now it appears that there’s no evidence.”
Spanish authorities accused the group of breaking into the Madrid Embassy, tying up the staff, beating them and stealing laptops, phones and documents before fleeing the country. But before allowing Ahn’s release, U.S. Magistrate Judge Jean Rosenbluth noted that “nothing corroborates the most serious allegations” against Ahn that he and other assailants “struck and injured some of the North Koreans inside the embassy.”
Ahn’s lawyers don’t dispute his involvement in entering the embassy, but have said that accusations of violence against the North Korean officials are inaccurate and are based on unreliable claims by the North Koreans.
There are numerous photos and videos of Free Joseon members entering the embassy, however, and individuals familiar with the incident have told The Washington Post that there is video of embassy staff being tied up.
At a hearing earlier this month, Rosenbluth also underscored a key point that the Free Joseon members have been making: that their lives are endangered by the North Korean regime, a factor that could bode well for them in their extradition case.
“The FBI has confirmed that the North Korean government has threatened his life,” reads the order by Rosenbluth. “He reasonably argues that because Spain has diplomatic relations with North Korea, he faces a worse risk to his safety in that country than he does here, where it is much more difficult for North Koreans to enter.”
Henry Song, a Washington-based North Korea activist, said Ahn’s release was good news for defectors who support efforts to undermine Kim Jong Un’s regime.
“He is a hero,” Song said, urging the United States not to extradite Ahn to Spain.
Adrian Hong Chang, an alleged accomplice of Ahn who is accused of masterminding the raid, is on the run from U.S. authorities. Known as the ringleader of the Free Joseon group, Hong is in hiding because of potential safety threats by North Korean agents, said his lawyer, Lee Wolosky, adding that his whereabouts are unknown.
Hong founded a nonprofit human rights organization, Liberty in North Korea, or LINK, but later distanced himself from the group, said Hannah Song, LINK’s chief executive. She is not related to Henry Song.
Another man, Charles Ryu — a North Korean defector and naturalized U.S. citizen whom Spanish media named in June as a suspect in the embassy raid — served as LINK’s advocacy fellow until November, according to the group.
Song rejected any suggestion of a connection between her group and Free Joseon. She said Ryu appears to have been “contacted by Adrian Hong unbeknown to our organization, recruited to be involved in Free Joseon’s activities after leaving LINK.”
Ryu didn’t respond to questions about his alleged involvement with Free Joseon.
In response to the embassy raid, North Korea in March called on Spain to thoroughly investigate what it described as a “grave terrorist attack.”