Ex-US Marines fighter pilot loses bid to block extradition to the United States over China training allegations

The fate of former US Marines pilot Daniel Duggan now rests with Australia’s attorney general after a magistrate ruled he was eligible to be extradited to the United States to face charges related to the alleged training of Chinese military pilots.

After a short hearing on Friday, Magistrate Daniel Reiss found that Duggan met the conditions for extradition and ordered him to be moved to prison while lawyers for the US wait for Attorney General Mark Dreyfus to approve his removal.

Duggan has 15 days to seek a review of the order, which comes 19 months after his arrest in rural New South Wales, just weeks after returning from China to join his family in Australia.

Duggan’s wife Saffrine stood outside court with their six children, as she appealed to the Australian authorities to intervene.

“We are absolutely heartbroken and still don’t understand how this could be happening to us,” she said as supporters held up signs saying “Free Dan Duggan.”

“My husband is a good man, a great father, a wonderful friend and husband. He faces no Australian charges and has no criminal background whatsoever. Yet he is locked up by the say-so of the United States government,” she added.

She described Friday’s hearing as “simply about ticking boxes.”

“Now, we respectfully ask the attorney general to take another look at this case and bring my husband home.”

Saffrine Duggan (center) speaks to media prior to her husband's extradition hearing at Downing Centre Local Court, in Sydney, May 24, 2024. - Bianca De Marchi/AAP Image/Reuters
Saffrine Duggan (center) speaks to media prior to her husband's extradition hearing at Downing Centre Local Court, in Sydney, May 24, 2024. - Bianca De Marchi/AAP Image/Reuters

A 2017 indictment alleges Duggan trained Chinese military pilots between November 2009 and November 2012, when he was still a US citizen. Duggan met his Australian wife in 2011 and took Australian citizenship the following year.

The indictment said that “as early as 2008,” Duggan received an email from the US State Department telling him he was required to register with the Directorate of Defense Trade Controls and apply for permission to train a foreign air force.

Instead, it claims he conspired with others – including the Test Flying Academy of South Africa (TFASA) – to export defense services in violation of an arms embargo on China.

In a statement to CNN in 2023, TFASA said it complies with the laws of every jurisdiction in which it operates.

The statement said Duggan undertook one test-pilot contract for the company in South Africa between November and December 2012, and “never worked for TFASA on any of its training mandates in China.”

Duggan maintains the students he trained were Chinese civilians, including plane enthusiasts and people with ambitions within the civilian aviation industry.

His supporters believe he’s been caught up in geopolitics during a time of strained relations between the United States and China and have accused authorities of using him to send a message to former military personnel.

Friday’s hearing at Downing Centre Local Court was delayed for almost an hour due to protests that required the proceedings to be moved to a smaller courtroom that became so crowded that some members of the public sat on the floor.

Further delays occurred after Reiss asked the floor-sitters to leave the room, warning that anyone who didn’t “hold their tongue” could be prosecuted for contempt of court.

A spokesperson for the Australian attorney general said the government doesn’t comment on extradition matters.

Under Australia’s Extradition Act, Duggan is entitled to appeal directly to the attorney general as to why he shouldn’t be sent to the US.

There is no set time period for the attorney general to make a decision, but by law it should be made as soon as practicable.

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