Czech President: I warned ex-Justice Minister about illegality of alleged Russian hacker Yevgeniy Nikulin’s extradition to US

Miloš Zeman, photo: Josef Kopecký, ČRo

President Miloš Zeman has welcomed this week’s Constitutional Court ruling striking down a March 2018 order to extradite suspected Russian hacker Yevgeniy Nikulin to the United States. In a televised interview on Thursday, Mr Zeman said he warned former justice minister Robert Pelikán that the move was illegal – and accused him of being an American lackey.

Miloš Zeman,  photo: Josef Kopecký,  ČRo
Yevgeniy Nikulin was arrested in the Czech Republic in 2016, with the cooperation of the FBI, on multiple charges of identity and data theft. He stands accused of hacking into networks at major American companies, including LinkedIn and Dropbox, illegally accessing personal information from well over 100 million accounts worldwide.

Nikulin’s case quickly turned into battle between Washington and Moscow, which also sought the alleged hacker’s extradition – over his supposed involvement in a 2009 online theft amounting to less than two thousand euros.

The competing extradition claims also caused a schism in the Czech government – with President Zeman pressing the Kremlin’s case and then acting Prime Minister Andrej Babiš publicly siding with Washington.

Mr Zeman steered clear of criticising the prime minister in an interview for commercial station TV Barandov that aired on Thursday evening – but had harsh words for the ex-justice minister.

“Mr Pelikán should have acted like the Minister of Justice of a sovereign Czech Republic. He should not have acted like a servile subaltern official, who panders to foreign powers.”

Yevgeniy Nikulin, now in a San Francisco prison awaiting trial, is one of multiple high-profile Russian hackers indicted by the U.S. in recent years. The FBI hopes some can provide insights into Russian cybercrime beyond their individual cases in exchange for leniency. American intelligence analysts say the Kremlin routinely files counter extradition requests for such suspects.

Yevgeniy Nikulin,  photo: ČT
Nikulin was detained in Prague in October 2016 on the basis of an Interpol arrest warrant requested by American government. That warrant came two days before the Obama administration formally accused Russia of hacking the Democratic National Committee – as part of a concerted effort to embarrass Hillary Clinton and sway U.S. presidential elections in favour of Donald Trump.

Whatever the outcome of his eventual trial, the Czech Constitutional Court has ruled that it was illegal to extradite Nikulin before a final ruling on his asylum application here was processed. President Zeman told TV Barandov he had personally warned the justice minister of this.

“I had informed Mr Pelikán about this opinion. He decided to proceed anyway against a quite clear legal opinion. He may have been under certain pressure. It is difficult to decipher now just how intense that pressure may have been and what form it took.”

Although Nikulin’s asylum request was later denied, the Constitutional Court ruling opens the way for the Russian to seek compensation from the Czech state. It also sets a legal precedent for future extradition cases.