US hails Prague’s extradition of alleged Russian hacker

Moscow angry and Czech president and government at odds over Yevgeny Nikulin

Senator Jeff Sessions: “Computer hacking is not just a crime, it is a direct threat to the security and privacy of Americans.” Photograph: Al Drago/New York Times

Senator Jeff Sessions: “Computer hacking is not just a crime, it is a direct threat to the security and privacy of Americans.” Photograph: Al Drago/New York Times

 

The White House has welcomed the Czech Republic’s extradition to the US of an alleged Russian hacker, as Moscow warned Prague that the decision could damage their relations.

Czech police working with the FBI arrested Yevgeny Nikulin in Prague in October 2016, for allegedly hacking and stealing data from US firms including social network LinkedIn and online storage provider Dropbox in 2012-2013.

Shortly afterwards, Russia filed its own extradition request over Mr Nikulin’s alleged online theft of about €2,800 in 2009.

The case made political waves in the Czech Republic, where Kremlin-friendly president Milos Zeman lobbied for Mr Nikulin (30) to be sent to Russia but prime minister Andrej Babis and justice minister Robert Pelikan favoured the US claim.

Moscow’s anger and efforts to prevent the computer specialist falling into FBI hands have fuelled speculation over whether he could have information about Russia’s alleged hacking of the Democratic Party’s servers and other meddling during the 2016 US election campaign.

“The United States is grateful to the Czech Republic for the extradition of . . . Nikulin,” the White House said in a statement.

“Bringing criminals to justice is an important aspect of maintaining the reliability of the internet and defending our core values. We applaud the Czech Republic for upholding the principles of accountability and justice in this matter.”

‘Politically motivated’

Russia reacted with fury, however, and its foreign ministry said Prague had flouted legal norms with a “deliberate and politically motivated step aimed at undermining the constructive basis of bilateral co-operation”.

“Insufficient attention was given to our repeated calls to note that Mr Nikulin cannot count on an unbiased and fair trial amid the anti-Russian hysteria that is now being unleashed in the United States,” it said.

Mr Pelikan approved the extradition after a Czech court rejected Mr Nikulin’s final appeal last Thursday.

He pleaded not guilty to crimes including hacking, fraud and identity theft before a San Francisco court the following day – charges that could see him sentenced to more than 30 years in jail if found guilty.

“Computer hacking is not just a crime, it is a direct threat to the security and privacy of Americans,” said US attorney general Jeff Sessions.

“This is deeply troubling behaviour once again emanating from Russia. We will not tolerate criminal cyber-attacks and will make it a priority to investigate and prosecute these crimes, regardless of the country where they originate.”

Paul Ryan, speaker of the US house of representatives, also welcomed Prague’s decision, having discussed the case with top Czech officials last week.

Close allies and advisors of Mr Zeman criticised the move, however, and his spokesman, Jiri Ovcacek, suggested that Mr Nikulin could be used as “ammunition” by enemies of US president Donald Trump.