Anger in Moscow and Prague Castle as Czech minister extradites hacker suspect to US

Anger in Moscow and Prague Castle as Czech minister extradites hacker suspect to US
Flashback to the October 2016 arrest of Yevgeny Nikulin in a restaurant in Prague where he had reportedly arrived shortly before for a holiday with his girlfriend.
By Jaroslav Hroch in Prague April 2, 2018

The drawn-out political and diplomatic battle over where to extradite alleged hacker Yevgeny Nikulin ended with the Russian leaving Czechia on March 30 for the US, where the same day he appeared at a San Francisco court accused of stealing data from LinkedIn, Dropbox and FormSpring. US investigators also believe that 30-year-old Nikulin—who pleaded not guilty to charges including computer intrusion and identity theft—is well informed about Russian cyber-operations conducted against Western countries.

Russia, which said in an April 2 statement issued by its foreign ministry that it was “outraged” that the Czechs had not decided to instead extradite Nikulin to his home country, has been pursuing the suspect for the online theft of approximately €2,800 in 2009.

The decision to send Nikulin to the US rather than Russia amounts to another victory for the pro-Western and pro-EU orientation of Czechia. It was made despite strong pressure stemming from Kremlin-friendly Czech President Milos Zeman and his inner circle to bow to Russia.

After Prague’s High Court ruled last November 24 that Nikulin could be extradited to the US, the decision was placed in the hands of Justice Minister Robert Pelikan (Ano). He has previously said that he was set to consider the seriousness of the alleged criminal activities (the US warrant is available here) and how active the US or Russia was in their efforts to secure the extradition. This rather indicated that Pelikan was moving towards a decision favouring the Americans, but the Castle exerted substantial pressure, with Zeman himself trying to personally persuade Pelikan to send Nikulin to Russia.

“The US issued an international warrant and they actively sought his detention. On the other hand, Russia raised her voice after Nikulin was detained and it was over a quite trifling criminal activity, and also an old one. There was even a question as to whether the activity is, according to Czech law, barred by the statute of limitations,” Pelikan said.

FBI ‘trying to link Nikulin to hacking of Democratic Party’s servers’
Nikulin was arrested in Prague while on holiday in October 2016 in an operation mounted by the Czech police and FBI. LinkedIn, owned by Microsoft Corp, has said his case is related to a breach that could have compromised the information of 100 million of its users or more. Nikulin faces up to 30 years in prison if convicted. His legal representatives have claimed the FBI was trying to link him to the hacking of the Democratic Party's servers during the 2016 US presidential election campaign, according to RFE/RL.

The American embassy in Prague praised Pelikan’s decision. “This cooperation is strengthened by the shared principle of the rule of law and was always built on trust, respect and the common aim of the protection of our nations against the crime,” it said in a statement.

Paul Ryan, Speaker of the US House of Representatives, who visited the Czech Republic at the end of March, but notably did not meet Zeman, also commended the decision. “This Russian hacker broke our laws. His extradition was a key issue I raised in Prague, and I’m pleased that the Czech government came to this decision,” he stated on Twitter.

On the other hand, the Russian embassy in Prague, expressed clear disappointment. “Prague once again gave priority to notorious allied solidarity, without taking into consideration all the factors and circumstances of this case,” it stated.

However, the strongest reaction came from Prague Castle. President Zeman, re-elected in January, is well-known for his pro-Russian stances in Czech politics and he had an immense interest in sending Nikulin to the Russians.

His spokesman, Jiri Ovcacek, stated in a conspiratorial manner that the extradition of Nikulin was not proof of an alliance with the US actually a step against US President Donald Trump. “We’re just sending ammunition aimed at Trump to Washington. The idle talk about being allies is just ballast,” Ovcacek said.

A member of Zeman’s inner circle, Castle Chancellor Vratislav Mynar, was even tougher in his reaction, but less comprehensible. “I don’t know whether the extradition to the US was a good choice, but according to the available information it was illegal. If what is in the media and what the lawyer of Mr Nikulin is saying is true, then in this case the justice minister incorporated our legal system to the level of Bangladesh or the Central African Republic,” he told daily E15.

Mynar had met with Nikulin’s lawyer Martin Sadlik. According to Sadlik, legal procedure demanded that Pelikan should not have conclusively decided on the extradition by the end of March but should have waited for an annulment appeal of Nikulin to Czechia’s highest administrative court in the wake of a Prague court denying his bid for asylum.

However, Nikulin is not considered as someone who is eligible for asylum and given the Castle’s chaotic messaging alleging all sorts of cunning, the president’s people have rather given the impression of trying to muddy the water.

Right-wing political commentator Roman Joch’s opinion is somewhere along such lines. “The Castle lost the battle over the extradition of Nikulin to Russia. Ovcacek keeps equivocating,” Joch stated on Twitter.

Ano burnishes its pro-Western credentials
Looking at the wider political circumstances against which the Nikulin case has played out, it is significant that of late the populist Ano party, currently trying to form a government with parliamentary backing under its leader and caretaker prime minister Andrej Babis, has been placing a lot of effort in proclaiming its pro-Western and pro-EU orientation. Babis’ minority government on March 27 approved a proposed bill on national referendums setting a high ceiling on holding votes and excluding international agreements to safeguard against potential Czexit calls. Babis, meanwhile, pledged to Nato secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg on March 22 that the Czech Republic will double its defence budget by 2024 to 2% of GDP.

Moreover, as an investigative journalist of the weekly Respekt wrote, Zeman has experienced three other important reversals in recent weeks. First came the problems of Chinese company CEFC, with the arrest of its chairman who serves as an advisor to Zeman and news that the huge promised influx of Chinese money into Czechia is not happening.

Secondly, Babis opted to kick out three Russian diplomats as part of the international coordinated response to alleged Russian involvement in the Skripal poisoning on British soil. Babis, who met with Ryan, used firm language against Russia in declaring his support for the UK. “When our ally asks us for help, we should be forthcoming,” he said. “Russians crossed all possible lines when they said the novichok [nerve] agent could originate from Czechia. It is a clear lie and we’ve denied it could be the case from the beginning.”

The third setback for Zeman concerns Czech energy group CEZ. The president and his advisor Martin Nejedly (another pro-Russian figure) were trying to push through the splitting up of CEZ but as Respekt has reported, this idea has been set aside. Babis does not want to decide on the matter at this point.

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