MOSCOW — The Russian spam kingpin had long been in the crosshairs of the F.B.I., and agents finally got their shot when the man scheduled a vacation in Spain. At the agency’s request, Spanish security officers in April arrested the man, Pyotr Levashov, who is accused of stuffing untold millions of inboxes with ads for pornography, pills and penny stocks.
But then the Russian authorities sprang a trap of their own, filing an extradition request with the Spanish authorities for a crime they said Levashov had committed in Russia years ago. Currently, he is languishing in a Spanish jail, but soon the authorities will have to decide which extradition request to honor: the United States’ or Russia’s.
This was by no means the first time that Russia had filed a competing extradition request. Far-fetched as it may seem, the Russians’ tactic has in several instances prevented Russians suspected of being computer criminals from being deported to the U.S. while detained in Europe.
The tactic has raised suspicions that the Russian authorities are more interested in derailing American investigations and possibly protecting criminals they find useful than they are in fighting cybercrime.
“People always ask me about this,” Timofey Musatov, a Moscow lawyer whose Russian client is the subject of competing extradition requests.
In Levashov’s case, Russian prosecutors sought his extradition after his detention in Spain when they discovered in August that he had hacked the computers of a hospital in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 2014.
Three similar cases are pending in courts in Greece, Spain and the Czech Republic. In two of the three, either the defendants’ lawyers or relatives have said that their cases have some bearing on the investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election in the United States. Though that may be true, they have not provided any proof.
Their theory is that with the politically charged atmosphere in the United States over the election meddling, the accused could not possibly get a fair trial there, so they should be returned to Russia.
In accordance with extradition treaties in all three countries, Russian lawyers say, the decision about where to send the accused resides with a government minister. That opens the prospect of the United States’ being powerless to stop the return to Russia of a suspect who may be able to offer valuable information on Russian meddling in the election.
The Greek police detained Musatov’s client, Aleksandr Vinnik, on an American warrant that accuses him of running a Moscow-based Bitcoin exchange, BTC-e, that laundered as much as $4 billion in illegal funds. Russian prosecutors filed an extradition request on a fraud charge.
The Russian case, Musatov said, surfaced soon after Vinnik’s detention in Athens, possibly because the Russian police had read about his client in news reports and decided to investigate him.
Another of Musatov’s clients, Dmitry Zubakha, who at the request of the United States was detained in Cyprus in 2012 on suspicion of hacking Amazon, was successfully extradited to Russia.