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The Cold War flavoured dispute with the Czech Republic, which is forced, against its will, to handle the delicate diplomatic match. The final decision on extradition is up to the Minister of Justice, but the Castle is doing everything to get the hacker sent to Russia

In a new Cold War climate filled with cyber security, web spying and modern Iron Curtains, United States and Russia are competing over a Russian hacker. And at the centre of this dispute is the Czech Republic, where 31-year-old Evghenij Nikulin, has been arrested and is still in prison after a year and a half of detention. The Americans first asked to extradite the IT pirate, before being followed immediately after by the Russians, giving rise to a dispute from which all the different orientations in foreign policy and the factions that characterize Prague emerged. The pro-Kremlin head of state Miloš Zeman is in fact doing everything to get Nikulin handed over to the Russian authorities, while the Justice Minister Robert Pelikán, who is responsible for the final decision, on the other hand, seems inclined to accept the American request. All this without forgetting the very cautious attitude of the Czech judicial authorities, also called to assess the appeals presented by Nikulin against what he considers an unjust and illegitimate detention.

Serious accusations weigh heavily on him, especially from the American side. For the US, Nikulin is responsible for a cyber-attack against LinkedIn, Dropbox and Formspring in 2012. Furthermore, Nikulin could have important information on the cybernetic intrusion suffered by the US Democratic Party on the eve of the last presidential elections, in order to harm Hillary Clinton. The hacker is not thought to have taken part in the attack, for which he had been accused at the time of his arrest, but according to FBI investigators he would know the names of those who did. He would therefore possess sensitive information on a subject that is still a major topic of discussion in the American post-election controversy. On the other hand, the official extradition request by the Russian authorities criticizes Nikulin for a much lighter crime: having stolen a sum of $ 3,450 on the Internet in 2009.

The hacker was arrested in Prague on 5 October 2016 at the request of the FBI in an operation that was recorded by the Russian media and re-launched in the following days by the international media. The restaurant of a hotel in the Czech capital was the place of arrest, where the young Russian had come to spend a few days of relaxation, as he himself later recounted.

According to some media reconstructions, he was aware of being the recipient of a “red notice” (international arrest warrant) issued by Interpol at the request of the American FBI, which did not prevent him from allowing himself his Prague vacation. A circumstance that probably should not be underestimated, as it was as if, arriving in Prague, Nikulin thought to be in a safe place, where he could feel comfortable.

At the time of his arrest he was in the company of a woman and did not offer the slightest resistance, as shown by the video images that were then later spread by the Czech police.

Since then, Nikulin has been detained in the capital and has repeatedly complained through his lawyer of the prolonged detention, prison conditions and admission to a psychiatric hospital immediately after the arrest. The hospitalization, in fact, according to the suspect was only an illicit ploy, by the Czech authorities to gain the time necessary to complete the documentation for the detention on the basis of Interpol’s arrest warrant.

The charges against Nikulin were made by a federal court in Oakland, California, precisely for his alleged hacking activities, for which could face up to 30 years in prison and a million-dollar fine.

And up to here it would be a normal story of cooperation between friendly states, United States and Czech Republic, who also collaborate in the judicial field. That is, if it were not that Nikulin, who repeatedly asked not to be handed over to the American authorities, but to the Russian authorities, and is also requesting asylum in the Czech Republic, has also been demanded by Moscow, in a genuine diplomatic tug of war between the two powers.

Here the heavy interference of the Czech head of state plays its part. Zeman, in fact, is putting pressure on Minister of Justice Robert Pelikán (ANO), who is responsible on extradition requests. The head of state has twice summoned the Minister of justice, asking him to accept the extradition request of Russia and to reject the US. The meetings were held in private, but the presidential interest was made public by the Justice Minister himself, who also told of the visit of the presidential chancellor Vratislav Mynář, who had come to deliver the letter sent to the Castle by Nikulin’s mother. “He asked me several times, and vehemently, to accept the Russian request, I listened to and presented my position to the President”, said Pelikán, who has every intention of not wanting to give in to the Castle’s pressure.

A decisiveness that could even cost the minister his position. In these last weeks of negotiations for the formation of the next government, the rumor circulated with insistence that the prime minister, Andrej Babiš, in order not to lose the Head of State’s alliance, is thinking of sacrificing Pelikán and replacing him with a person more malleable and willing to accept the diktat of the Castle.

In the meantime, the Czech authorities found themselves compelled, in mid-January, to disprove the content of an article in the Moscow daily Izvestija entitled “Slow death in a Czech prison”. The argument was that Nikulin’s health conditions, held in solitary confinement for more than a year in the Pankrác Prison, are worrying, and are worsening, with the aggravating circumstance that he is not guaranteed the necessary medical. “There is absolutely no truth to it”, replied Prague. Confidential sources in the Czech Republic have rather said that the hacker is subject to the highest regime of surveillance, not only during his transfers from prison to court, but also in jail. The Czech security services fear he could be kidnapped or even poisoned.

In the tangled bungle a place is also found for a recent ruling by the Czech Constitutional Court, which has frozen the proceedings relating to Nikulin, until the judges have expressed their views on the appeals presented by the hacker himself.

It is not yet known when Prague will make a decision, but it is clear that the issue is raising the tension between Moscow and Washington to dangerous levels. According to sources of the Ministry of Justice, the suspension of the Constitutional Court could last even months.

Inevitably, the story is also affecting relations between the Czech Republic and the United States. Diplomatic sources of the Trump administration do not hesitate to define it as “the number one issue to be resolved between the two States”. It does not seem to be a coincidence that Miloš Zeman’s visit to the White House, planned, and seeming certain several times last year, by the Czech presidential entourage, never took place in the end.

Likewise, it does not seem that in the last few weeks, among the hundreds of congratulatory telegrams that have come to Zeman after his presidential re-election, that one came from Donald Trump. Purely a coincidence too? The answer seeming most likely to us is in the negative.

by Daniela Mogavero