A Russian hacker and an Israeli cannabis possessor - Analysis

Although it seems that Israel will not turn Burkov over to Russia in a trade for Issachar, Russia has reasons to think such hard ball might work.

Hacker (photo credit: INGIMAGE / ASAP)
(photo credit: INGIMAGE / ASAP)
In a bizarre quirk of fate, Russia is trying to trade Israeli Na’ama Issachar, just sentenced to seven-and-a-half years in prison for possessing cannabis, for Alexei Burkov, arrested by Israel for perpetrating cyber fraud in the US.
Welcome to the wild world of extradition.
In a classic extradition case, one person commits an individual crime in his home country and flees to a foreign country to escape the law.
Usually the criminal is in it for personal gain, and none of the governments involved particularly care what happens to the criminal.
If there is an extradition treaty between the country of origin and the country the criminal fled to, he is usually extradited back home. If there isn’t one, they are often not sent back.
And then there is the situation when diplomatic considerations break into the fold.
Here, Burkov has been on “extradition row” since 2015, when the US filed a serious and well-grounded evidentiary request for extraditing him to the US for perpetrating the cyber fraud scheme.
Recently, the Israeli Supreme Court rejected his final appeal, which means all that is needed is for acting Justice Minister Amir Ohana to sign off. His extradition to the US would seem to be a done deal – until Russia sentenced Issachar for possessing nine grams of cannabis in her checked luggage, as she transferred planes at a Moscow airport in April en route to Israel from India.
Israeli legal experts say that such a heavy sentence for mere possession from someone who was just doing a stopover was off-the-charts disproportionate, and a clear diplomatic signal from Moscow that it would play hardball to get Burkov back.
The message from Russia was: give us back Burkov or we will hold Issachar for a long time, and who knows what Israeli might be next.
Does this mean Burkov has value to Moscow and might have been involved in cyber intelligence activities? Why else would they care if one Russian gets sent to jail for fraud?
Although it seems that Israel will not turn over Burkov to Russia in a trade for Issachar, Russia has reasons to think such hardball tactics might work.
First, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu owes Russian President Vladimir Putin for the timely return of the remains of deceased IDF soldier Zachary Baumel in the run-up to the April election.
Second, Israel in general needs Russia’s cooperation to attack Iranian militias in Syria and precision missiles that the Islamic Republic is sending to Syria or Lebanon.
Third, who wants to anger Russia when its role in the Middle East is growing to fill the vacuum from the continued US withdrawal from the region?
The Jerusalem Post has learned that Israel could even posit half-plausible sounding legal grounds for sending Burkov back to Russia instead of to the US.
When there are two extradition requests from different countries for one person, the arresting country has more freedom to choose where to send the criminal based on a variety of factors.
If Russia asks to extradite Burkov back home and says it will bring him to justice, and provides evidence of crimes committed in Russia, Israel could politely turn down the US request on the grounds that the “center of gravity” of Burkov’s crimes are in Russia – even if the US asked to extradite him first.
A second tactic could be if Israel considered Issachar as being held hostage. Then it could turn down the US request to make an exchange based on “essential national interests.”
In both of these scenarios, diplomatic considerations could mix with the law and decisively influence the outcome.
In the end, it appears Israel will still extradite Burkov to the US, and instead plead for Russia to release Issachar as an act of mercy.
One reason is that Israel’s legal system has already stamped Burkov as ready for delivery after four years of proceedings. If diplomatic games were going to interject into the process and have some veneer of respecting the legal process, they needed to come in before the Supreme Court ruled.
As a corollary to this, Israel views the US request as a serious evidence-based request, and views the Russian request as less genuine. This point is hard to ignore within the Israeli system.
Furthermore, the two offenders do not seem like an equal trade.
Regardless whether Burkov has direct connections to Russian intelligence, his cyber-hacking fraud scheme is far more serious than an adolescent caught with a bit of cannabis in her luggage during a stopover.
Finally, as much as Israel is trying to stay on good terms with Russia, the US is still its top relationship.
The consequences of tossing out a legitimate US request for a serious cybercriminal could lead to far more serious and legitimate retaliation from the US than Russia’s arrest of Issachar.
So Russia’s gambit will probably not pay off – then again, in the crazy world of extradition and diplomacy, one never knows.