Extradition fight over Russian man held in Greece may point to spies’ use of bitcoin

Aleksandr VinnikAn intense fight between the United States and Russia over the extradition of a Russian cryptocurrency tycoon being held in Greece, is raising questions about the possible use of cryptocurrencies by spies. The tycoon in question is Aleksandr Vinnik, 39, who in 2011 co-founded BTC-e, an international cryptocurrency-trading platform. BTC-e allowed users to buy or sell several popular cryptocurrencies, including bitcoin and litecoin, using Russian rubles, United States dollars, or European Union euro currencies. Although headquartered in Russia, BTC-e’s servers were located in Bulgaria, while its operations were conducted through its offshore components in Cyprus and the Seychelles.

By 2015, BTC-e was reportedly facilitating just over 3 percent of the worldwide daily volume of cryptocurrency trading. But, according to some sources, the company was also facilitating up to 70 percent of worldwide criminal activity involving cryptocurrencies. Washington alleges that the company was built on a model that relied heavily on the activities of criminal entities, as the latter sought the ability to conduct online monetary transactions without being tracked by governments.

In 2017, American authorities seized BTC-e’s website —a move that terminated the company’s operations. Washington also prompted authorities in Greece to arrest Vinnik, while he was vacationing at a Greek resort with his family. The Russian co-founder of BTC-e is today in a Greek prison, awaiting a decision by the Greek authorities to extradite him to the United States. If this happens, he will be tried on 21 counts of international money laundering and a host of other criminal charges.

Interestingly, however, shortly after Vinnik’s arrest, the Russian government filed a court order to have Greece extradite him to Russia, where he is reportedly wanted for relatively minor fraud-related charges. What is more, the Greek government was directly lobbied by no other than the Russian President Vladimir Putin —an unusually high-level approach, when one considers Vinnik’s trivial charges in Russia. France has also sought to have Vinnik extradited there, instead of the United States.

What lies behind these moves? There are many who believe that American authorities moved against BTC-e after realizing that Russian spies used the company to hide their traces while trying to meddle with the 2016 presidential elections in the United States. A recent report by the State Department’s RFE/RL news website claims that a number of London-based observers from groups such as Global Witness and Elliptic Enterprises believe there are strong links between Russian spy agencies and BTC-e. American authorities have managed to access information about the inner workings of BTC-e’s website. They are probably viewing Vinnik as an intelligence asset, who can potentially shed light on the company’s alleged role as a money laundering mechanism for Russian spies —and probably others as well.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 29 November 2019 | Permalink

Venezuelan ex-spy chief disappears as Spain seeks to extradite him to US

Hugo CarvajalThe former director of Venezuela’s military spy agency, who is wanted in the United States for drug trafficking, reportedly disappeared in Spain as authorities there were attempting to extradite him to Washington. Hugo Carvajal is a retired general and former diplomat, who was a member of the late Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez’s inner circle. From 2004 to 2011, under Chávez’s tutelage, Carvajal headed the Directorate General of Military Counterintelligence (DGCIM).

In 2008 the US named Carvajal as a major facilitator of international drugs trafficking and imposed financial sanctions on his assets around the world. Washington accused Carvajal of assisting the paramilitary group known as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) transport drugs from Latin America to Mexico and from there to the US.

Things took an interesting turn, however, when in February of this year Carvajal posted a video on social media in which he denounced Chávez’s successor, President Nicolás Maduro, and sided with his arch-nemesis, Juan Guaido, the President of the National Assembly of Venezuela. In his video, Carvajal urged the Venezuelan armed forces to stop siding with Maduro and support Guaido as Venezuela’s acting president. Guaido is openly supported by the United States and dozens of other Western countries.

Soon after making his announcement, Carvajal fled to Spain, where he was arrested in April, after the US Department of Justice filed a formal request for the former spy chief’s extradition to America. But in September, Spain’s top criminal court ruled that Carvajal would not be extradited to the US. The former spy chief was released minutes after the court made its decision known.

Last Friday, however, the same court accepted an appeal by the Office of the Public Prosecutor and overturned its earlier decision. Shortly after the court’s decision, Spanish media reported that Carvajal had already been arrested and was due to be transported to the US in a matter of days. But three days later, the former spy chief posted a message on his personal Twitter account saying that neither he nor his lawyers had been approached by Spanish police. It appeared, then, that Carvajal had not been detained.

Spanish newspaper El Pais reported on Tuesday that Carvajal was nowhere to be found when Spanish police officers went to his residence in Madrid to arrest him. His whereabouts are currently unknown, said the paper. The US Department of Justice has not commented on the case.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 13 November 2019 | Permalink

Former CIA officer connected with abduction of Muslim cleric flees Europe

Sabrina De SousaA former officer in the United States Central Intelligence Agency, who was convicted of involvement in the 2003 abduction of a Muslim cleric in Italy, says she fled Europe for the United States in fear of her safety. Sabrina De Sousa, 63, was a diplomat at the US consulate in Milan, Italy, when a CIA team abducted Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr from a Milan street in broad daylight. Nasr, who goes by the nickname Abu Omar, is a former member of Egyptian militant group al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya, and was believed by the CIA to have links to al-Qaeda. Soon after his abduction, Nasr was renditioned to Egypt, where he says he was brutally tortured and raped, and held illegally for years before being released without charge.

Upon Nasr’s release from prison, Italian authorities prosecuted the CIA team that abducted him —apparently without Italy’s permission or consent. They were able to trace the American operatives through a substantial trail of evidence they left behind, including telephone records and bill invoices in luxury hotels in Milan and elsewhere. In 2009, De Sousa was among 22 CIA officers convicted in absentia in an Italian court for their alleged involvement in Nasr’s abduction. The US government has refused to extradite the 22 officers to Italy to serve prison sentences. However, those convicted are now classified as international fugitives and risk arrest by Interpol and other law enforcement agencies, upon exiting US territory.

De Sousa was arrested in Lisbon, Portugal, in 2015. Portuguese authorities threatened to extradite her to Italy, but in 2017 the Italian government partially commuted her sentence to house arrest and reduced it from seven to four years. There were reports at the time that Italy had bowed to diplomatic pressure from Washington. On Monday, however, Italian newspaper Il Corriere della Sera said that De Sousa had fled Europe and returned to the US in fear for her personal safety. The former CIA officer told the paper that she decided to return to the US after senior American officials, including CIA Director Gina Haspel and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, visited Italy earlier this month. Pompeo traveled to Rome for an official visit on October 1, while Haspel met with senior Italian intelligence officials on October 9.

De Sousa told Il Corriere della Sera that Haspel’s visit to Italy “verified for the Italian government that the American administration had washed its hands of my situation”. For this reason, and “terrified of the consequences that I could face” in Italy, “I decided to leave”, said De Sousa. She did not elaborate on the precise connection between her partially commuted sentence and Pompeo and Haspel’s visit to Italy. She added that recent changes to the US Whistleblower Act made it possible for her to openly discuss further details on her case, but did not elaborate. Her Italian lawyer, Andrea Saccucci, spoke to the Reuters news agency and confirmed that his client had left Europe for the US.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 30 October 2019 | Permalink

Spanish court rejects US request to extradite Venezuelan ex-spy chief

Hugo CarvajalSpain has refused to extradite Venezuela’s former spy chief to the United States, where he is wanted for drug-running. The decision is also an intelligence setback for Washington, as the former spy, Hugo Carvajal, is reputed to possess a “treasure trove” of inside information on the Venezuelan government. Carvajal is a retired general, a former diplomat, and a member of the late Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez’s inner circle. From 2004 to 2011, under Chávez’s tutelage, Carvajal headed the Directorate General of Military Counterintelligence (DGCIM). In 2008 the US named Carvajal as a major facilitator of international drugs trafficking and imposed financial sanctions on his assets around the world. Washington accused Carvajal of assisting the paramilitary group known as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) transport drugs from Latin America to Mexico and from there to the US.

In 2014, the US government officially charged Carvajal with orchestrating a shipment of 1,200lbs of cocaine from Venezuela to Mexico. Washington also charged Carvajal with supplying FARC drug traffickers with Venezuelan passports bearing fake names, which they used to travel internationally to avoid detection. In February of this year, Carvajal publicly unexpectedly denounced Maduro and sided with his arch-nemesis, Juan Guaido, the President of the National Assembly of Venezuela. Carvajal urged the Venezuelan armed forces to stop siding with Maduro and support the US-backed Guaido as Venezuela’s acting president. In April of this year, Carvajal was arrested in Spain. Soon afterwards, the US Department of Justice filed a formal request for the former spy chief’s extradition to the US. An anonymous US official hinted at the time that Carvajal may have willingly given himself up to Spanish police to express his desire to cooperate with the US.

On Monday, however, Spain’s National Court (the country’s top criminal court) announced that Carvajal would not be extradited to the US. The former spy chief was released minutes after the court made its decision known. A court spokesman told reporters that a formal ruling and justification would be released “later”, but an official document has yet to be published. Carvajal’s lawyers told the court that the US request to have him extradited was politically motivated by the administration of US President Donald Trump. It is possible that the court may have sided with that view. There are also rumors that Carvajal may have agreed to cooperate with Spanish intelligence in return for receiving political asylum in Spain. The US Department of Justice has not commented on the case.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 19 September 2019 | Permalink

Swiss to extradite brother of ‘leading biochemist’ who spied for Chinese firm

GlaxoSmithKlineA Swiss court has ordered the extradition to the United States of the brother of one of the world’s leading biochemists, who spied on a British pharmaceutical firm to help a Chinese startup. The extradition is part of a large corporate espionage case centered on Yu Xue, a Chinese scientist described by US federal prosecutors as “one of the world’s top protein biochemists”. Yu specializes in drug research for cancer and other serious terminal illnesses. From 2006 until 2016 he worked in the US for GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), a leading British pharmaceutical group.

In 2018, Yu was arrested by US authorities for stealing trade secrets from a GSK research facility in the US state of Pennsylvania, and giving them to a Chinese startup pharmaceutical company called Renopharma. He eventually pleaded guilty to stealing proprietary data from GSK, in a case that the US Department of Justice described as a textbook example of Chinese “economic warfare” against America. US government prosecutors also claim that Renopharma is almost wholly funded the Chinese government. The three co-founders of the Chinese firm have also been charged with corporate espionage targeting a US firm.

On May 28 Yu’s brother, Gongda Xue, was arrested in Basel, Switzerland. According to the US government, Gongda used GSK data stolen by his brother to carry out drug experimentation at the Friedrich Miescher Institute for Biomedical Research, where he worked as a post-doctoral trainee between 2008 and 2014. On Tuesday, the Swiss Federal Office of Justice (FOJ), ruled in favor of a request by the US government to extradite Gongda so he can be tried in Pennsylvaia. According to the FOJ, the Chinese scientist will be extradited as soon as his 30-day appeal period expires.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 17 July 2019 | Permalink

Germany extradites spy to Croatia to serve 30-year sentence for role in assassination

Josip Perkovic Zdravko MustacGermany has extradited a former senior official of the Yugoslav intelligence service to Croatia, where he is expected to serve a 30-year prison sentence for organizing the assassination of a dissident in Munich in 1983. Josip Perković is a former senior official in the Yugoslav State Security Service, known as UDBA. In 2014, he was extradited to Germany from Croatia alongside another former UDBA officer Zdravko Mustać. The two men were tried in a German court in the Bavarian capital Munich for organizing the assassination of Stjepan Đureković on July 28, 1983. Đureković’s killing was carried out by UDBA operatives in Wolfratshausen, Bavaria as part of a UDBA operation codenamed DUNAV. Đureković, who was of Croatian nationality, was director of Yugoslavia’s state-owned INA oil company until 1982, when he suddenly defected to West Germany. Upon his arrival in Germany, he was granted political asylum and began associating with Croatian nationalist émigré groups that were active in the country. It was the reason why he was killed by the government of Yugoslavia.

In 2016, both men were found guilty of organizing Đureković’s murder and were sentenced to life imprisonment, a sentence that was upheld by Germany’s Supreme Court in May. Last year, a court in the Croatian capital Zagreb commuted Perković’s prison sentence to 30 years so that he could be extradited there, since the Croatian justice system does not recognize life prison sentences. A statement from the German Interior Ministry said on Thursday that Perković had been transported to Zagreb on a regular flight from Munich “without incident”. Perković’s extradition to Croatia also concluded a long-standing bureaucratic battle between the former Yugoslav Republic and the European Union. In 2013, shortly before joining the EU, Croatia made it illegal to extradite individuals abroad for crimes committed before 2002. It is believed that Croatian officials changed the law in an attempt to protect armed Croatian nationalists who engaged in criminal activity during the Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s from being tried in European courts. Following systematic pressure from the EU, Croatia scrapped the extradition restriction and sent Perković and Mustać to Germany.

Legal proceedings to extradite Mustać to Croatia to serve his sentence there are continuing. Meanwhile, the two former spies have sued the German state at the European Court of Human Rights, arguing that they were not given a fair trial in Munich. Anto Nobilo, who represented Perković in court, said that the European Court of Human Rights is likely to rule in favor of his client and that he will be “released in a year or two”. If this happens, Croatia will have to re-extradite Perković to Germany to face a new trial.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 12 July 2019 | Permalink

Venezuelan ex-spy chief with ‘treasure trove of intel’ on Maduro arrested in Spain

Hugo CarvajalThe former director of Venezuela’s military spy agency, who is wanted in the United States for facilitating international drug trafficking, has been arrested in Spain and may be extradited to Washington. Hugo Carvajal is a retired general and former diplomat, who was a member of the late Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez’s inner circle. From 2004 to 2011, under Chávez’s tutelage, Carvajal headed the Directorate General of Military Counterintelligence (DGCIM). But in 2008, the US named Carvajal as a major facilitator of international drugs trafficking and imposed financial sanctions on his assets around the world. Washington accused Carvajal of assisting the paramilitary group known as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) transport drugs from Latin America to Mexico and from there to the US.

In 2014, the US government officially charged Carvajal with orchestrating a shipment of 1,200lbs of cocaine from Venezuela to Mexico. Washington also charged Carvajal with supplying FARC drug traffickers with Venezuelan passports bearing fake names, which they used to travel internationally to avoid detection. In 2014, Carvajal was arrested by authorities in Aruba, a Dutch overseas territory in Latin America, where he was serving as Venezuela’s consul general. But, to Washington’s dismay, he was released after the Dutch government ruled that his diplomatic immunity gave him immunity from prosecution. Following his release, Carvajal returned to Venezuela, where he was given a hero’s welcome by Chávez’s successor, President Nicolás Maduro. It came as a shock, therefore, when in February of this year Carvajal posted a video on social media in which he denounced Maduro and sided with his arch-nemesis, Juan Guaido, the President of the National Assembly of Venezuela. Carvajal’s issued his video a few weeks after Guaido declared himself president of Venezuela, citing powers afforded to him by the country’s constitution. He has since been openly supported by the United States and dozens of other Western countries. In his video, Carvajal urged the Venezuelan armed forces to stop siding with Maduro and support Guaido as Venezuela’s acting president.

The BBC reported that, shortly after Carvajal’s arrest in Spain, the US Department of Justice filed a formal request for the former spy chief’s extradition to the US. But the Reuters news agency cited an unnamed US government official who said that Carvajal was in possession of a “treasure trove” of intelligence about Maduro’s administration. The US official hinted that Carvajal may have willingly given himself up to Spanish police to express his desire to cooperate with the US. He is scheduled to appear before Spain’s High Court on Saturday. The court has 24 hours following Carvajal’s arrest to rule whether he will be extradited or freed from detention.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 15 April 2019 | Permalink