WELLINGTON – As part of a deal they struck to avoid extradition to the United States, two men pleaded guilty Wednesday in New Zealand to their involvement in running the once wildly popular pirating website Megaupload.
The pleas by Mathias Ortmann and Bram van der Kolk at the Auckland High Court ended their 10-year legal battle to avoid extradition to the U.S. on charges that included racketeering.
Those charges will be dropped under a deal with prosecutors from both countries after the pair pleaded guilty in New Zealand to being part of a criminal group and causing artists to lose money by deception. They have been released on bail pending sentencing and face a maximum ten years in prison.
The U.S. is still seeking to extradite Megaupload’s founder Kim Dotcom, who also lives in New Zealand and has said he now expects his former colleagues to testify against him.
Prosecutors say Megaupload raked in at least $175 million — mainly from people who used the site to illegally download songs, television shows and movies — before the FBI shut it down in early 2012 and arrested Dotcom and other company officers.
Ortmann told news website Stuff that after a decade of living in New Zealand on bail, the pair had firm roots in the country and were contributing to society through Mega, a legitimate cloud-storage website they set up after their arrest.
“There's absolutely no point in dwelling on these proceedings any longer and we are putting it behind us, and accepting our responsibility," Ortmann said.
Van der Kolk said they had learned from their mistakes.
“We've worked incredibly hard on Mega and we strongly feel that our rehabilitation process has started a long time ago,” he told Stuff.
Lawyers for Dotcom and the other men had long argued that if anybody was guilty in the case, it was the users of the site who chose to pirate material, not the founders. But prosecutors argued the men were the architects of a vast criminal enterprise.
Dotcom and the two other men were once close friends but had a falling out after their arrest and subsequent work on the Mega website.
U.S. prosecutors had earlier dropped their extradition bid against a fourth officer of the company, Finn Batato, who was arrested in New Zealand. Batato returned to Germany where he died from cancer earlier this month.
In 2015, Megaupload computer programmer Andrus Nomm, of Estonia, pleaded guilty in the case to conspiring to commit felony copyright infringement and was sentenced to one year and one day in U.S. federal prison.
Last year, New Zealand’s Supreme Court ruled the trio could be extradited. But the nation's justice minister has yet to make a final decision on whether the extradition — now just of Dotcom — will go ahead.
Even that decision could be appealed and spend still more time in the slow-moving New Zealand legal system.