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France secures extradition of Russian bitcoin baron

Alexander Vinnik, at a hearing in Greece, December 13, 2017. Costas Baltas / REUTERS

France won Thursday, January 23, the first round of a legal battle which has pitted it against Russia and the United States for almost two years, against a backdrop of espionage, hacking and high diplomatic tensions.

French authorities have succeeded in obtaining the transfer of a 40-year-old Russian national, Alexander Vinnik, whom they suspect of having defrauded a hundred people in France, between 2016 and 2018. Russia and the United States claimed him also in Greece, where he was arrested in 2017.

The United States accuses him of being the brain of BTC-e, a platform for exchanging and converting electronic currencies, including bitcoin. Concretely, a huge washing machine for dirty money used since 2011 by various thieves (hackers, identity thieves, drug traffickers) up to $ 9 billion. The Russian faces more than fifty years in prison in the United States.

“The Russians invented phony facts”

Alexander Vinnik therefore arrived on Thursday afternoon on French soil. A relief for the French investigators who, until the end, feared that he would be released. The maximum pre-trial detention period in Greece was due to expire on 25 January. Weakened by a weeks-long hunger strike, Mr. Vinnik was interrogated by an interpreter by French judges upon his arrival in a medical detention room at the Hôtel-Dieu hospital in Paris. He was able to see a doctor and is currently “The object of attentive care”, according to a source familiar with the matter.

According to information from World, confirming those of the AFP, he was immediately indicted for “extortion by organized gang”, “aggravated money laundering”, “criminal association” and “hacking by organized gang”. Judicial information had been opened in June 2018 by the Paris prosecutor's office and entrusted two investigative judges from the financial pole.

When the police arrested him, in the summer of 2017, Alexander Vinnik was on vacation in a coastal village in north-eastern Greece. The United States then just charged him with money laundering. Shortly thereafter, the Russian authorities expediently indict their national for a scam and attempt, in turn, to obtain his extradition.

“The Russians invented phony facts”, wants to believe an excellent connoisseur of the file. They would not like Mr. Vinnik to be questioned by the American authorities who are still interested, in particular, in the operations of digital interference orchestrated by Russia during the American presidential election. BTC-e was reportedly used by pirate units in the Kremlin to channel funds.

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