Israel extradites accused Russian computer hacker to United States

A Russian man charged by federal authorities with committing more than $20 million in computer fraud has been extradited to the United States from Israel, the latest development in a legal drama pitting Washington against Moscow and involving an imprisoned Israeli American woman as an apparent pawn.

The alleged Russian hacker and identity thief, Aleksei Burkov, 29, was indicted four years ago by a federal grand jury in Alexandria, Va., where he made his initial court appearance Tuesday after arriving in handcuffs at Dulles International Airport. He was arrested under a U.S. warrant while traveling in Israel in 2015, and, until Monday, he had been jailed there during extradition proceedings in Israeli courts.

Before Burkov was finally turned over to U.S. authorities, Russia had been seeking to free him from Israeli custody in a proposed prisoner swap, according to Israeli media accounts. For its part, Moscow offered to release the Israeli American woman, Na’ama Issachar, 26, who has been behind bars in Russia since last spring.

Issachar, a New Jersey native, was headed home to Israel in April after a backpacking trip when she was arrested at a Moscow airport and charged with carrying 9.6 grams of hashish in her luggage. Her 7.5-year prison sentence was described by lawyers in Moscow as extraordinarily harsh, suggesting that the government of Russian President Vladi­mir Putin wanted to use her to gain Burkov’s release.

Na’ama Issachar (Liad Goldberg)
Na’ama Issachar (Liad Goldberg)

Last month, the Tel Aviv-based newspaper Haaretz quoted an unidentified senior Israeli official as calling Burkov “an asset of supreme importance” to Moscow. But why he apparently means so much to Putin’s government is unclear.

The U.S. attorney’s office in Alexandria said Burkov operated a website called Cardplanet that sold credit and debit card numbers that had been stolen through computer hacking, resulting “in over $20 million in fraudulent purchases.”

Burkov arrived in Virginia on Monday night. (Alexandria Sheriff's Office)
Burkov arrived in Virginia on Monday night. (Alexandria Sheriff’s Office)

He also “ran another website that served as an invite-only club where elite cybercriminals could advertise stolen goods, such as personal identifying information and malicious software, and criminal services, such as money laundering,” the office said. Burkov, whose name also has appeared as Aleksey Burkov, is charged with wire fraud, money laundering, identity theft and other offenses.

While the U.S. government’s extradition request slowly moved through courts in Tel Aviv in recent years, Burkov’s detention in Israel drew scant public notice, according to recent news accounts. But after Issachar was given the lengthy prison term in Russia last month and Moscow pushed for a prisoner exchange, the case developed an aspect of intrigue.

Issachar’s mother, Yassa Issachar, told The Washington Post that her daughter moved to Israel as a teenager and served in the country’s military. In April, after traveling and studying yoga in India, she was on her way home to the Israeli city of Rehovot by way of Moscow. She was arrested while boarding a connecting flight.

As for Burkov, his extradition to the United States was eventually approved by Israel’s Supreme Court. Issachar’s family continued to contest the decision in Tel Aviv, hoping that Burkov would instead be returned to Moscow. But last week, with Burkov’s extradition seeming inevitable, the family dropped its challenge, according to Issachar’s sister, Liad Goldberg.

In an interview Tuesday, Goldberg, who lives in Los Angeles, said that as Israeli officials keep working to gain Issachar’s freedom, her family hopes that Russian officials will reduce or commute her sentence, given that a prisoner swap is no longer possible.

“Now that she’s off the table, now that she’s not a bargaining chip anymore, we’re thinking something good will happen,” Goldberg said.

After his arrival at Dulles on Monday night, Burkov, clad in jeans, a button-down shirt and cardigan, appeared Tuesday before Magistrate Judge John F. Anderson in U.S. District Court in Alexandria. Burkov was ordered held pending a Friday hearing at which Anderson will decide whether he should be jailed while awaiting trial.

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