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Accused Russian hacker to plead guilty to US charges; case prompted diplomatic fight with Israel

Hacked computer code. (PxHere/Released)

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

A Russian man who was the subject of a three-year diplomatic scuffle between Russia, Israel, and the United States was set to plead guilty to U.S. charges related to the massive cybertheft of credit cards.

Documents filed in a U.S. federal court indicated that Aleksei Burkov, 29, will change his plea from not guilty when he makes his next court appearance on January 23.

Burkov’s U.S. defense lawyer did not immediately respond to a query from RFE/RL.

Burkov, who was extradited to the United States from Israel in November, was the latest in a series of alleged Russian hackers whom U.S. authorities have targeted for arrest while they were traveling outside of Russia.

The arrests have prompted angry denunciations from Moscow, which accused the United States of “hunting” Russian citizens.

He was initially arrested by Israel in 2015, on a U.S. arrest warrant. Indictments unsealed later charged him in connection with allegedly operating two Russian-language chat forums where, according to U.S. officials, members traded stolen credit card numbers and other information worth millions of dollars.

Diplomatic Scandal

After his arrest, Moscow pressed the Israeli government to send Burkov to Russia and not to the United States.

According to court documents filed last week, Burkov oversaw two forums in the early 2010s: Cardplanet and Direct Connection.

On Cardplanet, Burkov allegedly advertised more than 150,000 hacked credit cards, many of which came from U.S. banks.

Direct Connection, meanwhile, was a Russian-language members-only forum where users could trade stolen credit cards, but also tips, malware, and other cyberscams, according to U.S. officials.

The newest filings omit mention of another forum that Burkov had been linked to earlier: a forum where a massive database containing the records of 191 million U.S. voters had been offered for sale in November 2015.

The fight for custody of Burkov grew into a public diplomatic scandal last year, when an Israeli woman was arrested at a Moscow airport in April as she was flying through, en route to another country.

Bargaining Chip?

Police said they found a small amount of marijuana in Naama Issachar’s luggage and charged her with drug smuggling. Issachar, who also holds U.S. citizenship, has denied the charges. In October, a Russian court sentenced her to 7 1/2 years in prison.

Many Israelis were outraged by the sentence which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu criticized as being disproportionate.

Issacher’s relatives, meanwhile, publicly accused Russian authorities of holding the 27-year-old Issachar as a bargaining chip to persuade Netanyahu to turn Burkov over to Russia.

Netanyahu, who has cultivated good relations with Putin, will meet the Russian leader when Putin travels to Jerusalem on January 23, to participate in a private forum connected to the anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz death camp.

The forum is being hosted and paid for by Russian-Israeli oligarch Moshe Kantor, who has been identified by the United States as having close Kremlin connections.

On January 20, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Putin and Netanyahu were likely to discuss Issachar’s case.