Hungary has rejected North Macedonia's request to extradite its fugitive former prime minister Nikola Gruevski, who fled to Budapest with the help of Hungarian diplomats to escape a jail term for corruption and a string of other charges.
Mr Gruevski failed to report to prison in his homeland to start a two-year sentence last November and appeared soon afterwards in Hungary, where he sought refuge from what he called threats and persecution from political enemies.
Hungary bypassed its normally draconian asylum procedures to grant protection within days to Mr Gruevski, a close ally of Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban who shares his nationalist views, opposition to immigration and antipathy towards civil society groups funded by liberal philanthropist George Soros.
At a hearing that was closed to reporters due to the possible sensitivity of the case, a Budapest court ruled on Thursday that Mr Gruevski’s asylum status meant he could not be sent back to the country from which he fled.
"Today a standard procedure was carried out in the institutions in Hungary after the criminal and racketeering government in Macedonia submitted a request for extradition," Mr Gruevski (48), who appeared in court wearing sunglasses and a black baseball cap, wrote afterwards on Facebook.
“The court reviewed the extradition request and decided not to accept it.”
After losing power in 2016 following a decade in office, Mr Gruevski and numerous allies now face prosecution for alleged crimes ranging from graft to vote rigging to unauthorised eavesdropping on some 20,000 people.
Most of the accused complain of political persecution, and Mr Gruevski claims to have been the intended target of an assassination plot in prison.
He was found guilty last year of fixing a public tender to buy an armoured Mercedes limousine and seeking a kickback from the car dealer. He denied the allegation and rejects the other charges he faces and investigations into his conduct.
On November 11th-12th, Mr Gruevski crossed from North Macedonia into Albania and then, with the help of Hungarian diplomats and using at least one car from an embassy of Hungary, travelled through Montenegro and Serbia to Budapest.
Zoran Zaev, who replaced Mr Gruevski as premier, said at the time: "We are requesting the extradition of Gruevski from Hungary and expect a country like Hungary to serve as an example, and not to protect criminals who harmed the citizens of Macedonia."
Mr Orban has claimed that Mr Soros is destabilising North Macedonia and that critics of Mr Gruevski’s asylum case are “identical” to supporters of migration.
“Allies should be treated with decency, and when they turn to us, they deserve decent treatment,” Mr Orban said of the former Macedonian leader.
The EU and US have indicated that they believe Mr Gruevski should face justice in his homeland.
Brussels and Washington strongly back the country's 2018 deal with Greece to change its name from Macedonia to North Macedonia, which has opened its path to eventual EU and Nato membership but is still fiercely opposed by Mr Gruevski and his nationalist allies.