Tuesday, July 17, 2018

A Greek court agreed Friday to extradite a Russian cybercrime suspect to France, a decision the Russian government protested and which could further sour relations between the two countries after Greece expelled two Russian diplomats.

The court in the northern city of Thessaloniki ruled in favor of France’s request to take custody of Alexander Vinnik, a former bitcoin operator who was arrested in Greece last year on a U.S.-issued warrant. Vinnik, 38, also is wanted on criminal charges in the United States and Russia.

The ruling was made a day after Greek authorities confirmed that two Russian diplomats were being expelled for allegedly providing protest funding in an attempt to keep neighbor Macedonia from joining NATO.

The Russian Foreign Ministry indicated it was considering reprisals.

“Several days after taking an unfriendly decision to expel Russian diplomats and to deny entry to several Russian citizens, they have adopted a decision to extradite Russian citizen Alexander Vinnik to France,” the ministry said in a statement issued Friday. “It is obvious that Russia cannot leave these actions unanswered.”

Greece’s leftwing prime minister, Alexis Tsipras, repeatedly has supported efforts to improve ties between Russia and the European Union. Tsipras invited Russian President Vladimir Putin to Greece two years ago.

But Russia and Greece are at odds over Macedonia’s goal to join NATO — a prospect that hinges on the small Balkan country resolving a longstanding name dispute with Greece.

At a NATO summit this week attended by U.S. President Donald Trump, Macedonia was formally invited to join the alliance.

Greece’s justice minister is expected to decide where Vinnik will be sent after examining the competing extradition requests from France, Russia, and the United States. Vinnik has denied doing anything illegal.

France is seeking the 38-year-old for alleged cybercrime, money laundering, membership in a criminal organization and extortion. The Greek Supreme Court earlier approved Vinnik’s extradition to the U.S. to stand trial for allegedly laundering billions of dollars using bitcoin.

French authorities accuse Vinnik of defrauding thousands of people worldwide, including about 100 French nationals, by launching cyberattacks through his bitcoin platform. They allege he used 20,643 bitcoins to launder around 133 million euros ($155 million.)

He remains jailed in Greece pending the final decisions on his extradition.

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Menelaos Hadjicostis in Nicosia, Cyprus and Derek Gatopoulos in Athens, Greece contributed. Follow Kantouris at http://www.twitter.com/CostasKantouris

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