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US judge sentences Russian hacker Nikulin to seven years in jail

A judge's gavel. (Dreamstime/TNS)

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

Yevgeny Nikulin, the Russian man dubbed the “Putin” of the Russian hacking world by a colleague, has been sentenced to just over seven years in jail after being convicted of hacking LinkedIn, DropBox, and other Internet companies.

The sentence was handed down by a U.S. federal court judge in San Francisco on September 29.

“I think you’re a brilliant guy. Very smart,” Judge William Alsup said, according to “I urge you to apply that brilliance to a lawful profession and do something good with your life other than hacking into computers.”

The judge said the 88-month sentence takes into account the nearly four years Nikulin has spent behind bars awaiting trial, the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, language challenges, and a judicial system with which he is unfamiliar.

“It’s not quite Kafkaesque because he did the crime, but it is harder on him than it is on the ordinary defendant,” Alsup said.

The judge also noted that Nikulin has a 10-year-old daughter in Russia and that his mother may not live long enough for him to see her again. His attorney, Valery Nechay, said she has had four spinal surgeries and three strokes in recent years.

Nikulin’s sentencing brings to a close a nearly four-year process that began with his surprise arrest in the Czech Republic in October 2016.

Prosecutors asked for a nearly 12-year prison sentence for Nikulin after a federal jury in July found him guilty on nine counts related to the hacking of several major U.S. social-media companies.

Intelligence Agency Involvement

Lawyers for Nikulin, who pleaded innocent to the charges, had asked the judge for leniency, citing among other thing, childhood abuse at the hands of his father and the suicide of his older brother. They asked the judge to sentence him to the time he served in U.S. custody since his arrest in Prague in October 2016.

Nikulin, who was extradited to the United States 17 months after his arrest, was targeted by U.S. law enforcement as part of a multiyear campaign to arrest some of the most notorious Russian hackers and suspected cybercriminals.

More than a dozen have been arrested in various countries, a development that has enraged Moscow, which has accused Washington of “hunting” Russian citizens.

The campaign undermined years of cooperation between U.S. law enforcement and Russian intelligence on various cyberinitiatives.

But it has also yielded insights into how Russian intelligence agencies including the FSB allegedly used hackers as part of their operations — including efforts, documented by U.S. intelligence and U.S. congressional committees, to interfere in the U.S. presidential election in 2016.

In one filing submitted by prosecutors in Nikulin’s trial, U.S. officials revealed they had interviewed a hacking colleague of Nikulin’s in Moscow. The man, identified in court documents as Nikita Kislitsin, met with FBI agents at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow in April 2014, where he offered details on Nikulin and other hackers.

According to the filing, Kislitsin described Nikulin as being very wealthy with a reputation for owning expensive sport cars. Kislitsin said Nikulin’s hacking skills were well known, and he called him the “‘Putin’ of the hacking world” — a reference to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Kislitsin was indicted himself in U.S. District Court in San Francisco on separate hacking charges. He later went on to work for a prominent Moscow cyber research company Group-IB.

Court papers also revealed an alleged business relationship between Nikulin and Aleksei Belan, who was later sanctioned by the United States and then indicted for his alleged role in the theft of more than a billion e-mail address belonging to Yahoo.

Some of Belan’s efforts were directed by an officer at Russia’s main intelligence agency, the Federal Security Service, according to court papers filed in Nikulin’s trial and in the Yahoo indictments that named Belan, and two Federal Security Service officers.