A lawyer for a Russian man accused of money laundering who was extradited to the US last month has lobbied Moscow to include his client in prisoner exchange negotiations with the US government.
The “only thing that can save” Alexander Vinnik, who US authorities allege ran a $4 billion cryptocurrency exchange that did business with ransomware gangs, is if the Russian government negotiates a prisoner swap with the US, Frédéric Bélot, Vinnik’s lawyer in France, said in a letter to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov obtained by CNN.
The appeal comes as the Biden administration continues to try to secure the release of multiple Americans detained or imprisoned in Russia, including WNBA star Brittney Griner, who was sentenced to nine years in prison for carrying cannabis oil through a Moscow airport.
The Biden administration has offered to exchange convicted Russian arms trafficker Viktor Bout as part of a potential deal to secure the release of Griner and Paul Whelan, an American who has been held in Russia for alleged espionage since 2018, CNN reported in July. US officials say they are still trying to get the Americans released, though no breakthrough has occurred in recent weeks.
Asked Tuesday whether there had been discussion between US and Russian officials about including Vinnik in a prisoner swap, State Department principal deputy spokesperson Vedant Patel said he would not publicly discuss details of the negotiations.
“The US government continues to urge Russia to release wrongfully detained individuals Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan,” Patel said at a press briefing.
“Our governments have communicated repeatedly and directly” on a proposal put forward by the US to free the two Americans, Patel said.
CNN has requested comment from the Russian foreign ministry on Bélot’s letter to Lavrov.
Reuters first reported on the letter.
US prosecutors had for years been in an extradition fight with Russian authorities over Vinnik, who was arrested in Greece and subsequently extradited to France, where he was sentenced to five years in prison in 2020 for money laundering. The Justice Department ultimately won its appeal to apprehend Vinnik, who made his initial court appearance in the Northern District of California on August 5.
Vinnik is accused of operating a cryptocurrency exchange known as BTC-e that allegedly did business with drug dealers and various cybercriminals such as identity thieves.
Vinnik maintains his innocence, according to Bélot, who represents the 42-year-old Russian man in France. CNN has requested comment from David Rizk, a public defender whom court records list as Vinnik’s attorney in the Northern District of California.
The Russian government, through its embassies and consulates in the US, often pays close attention to the trials of accused Russian cybercriminals. And Vinnik is far from the first Russian whom the Kremlin has asked another government to extradite after US prosecutors filed their own extradition request.
Aleksei Burkov, who US authorities accused of running an online forum for “elite cybercriminals,” was extradited to the US from Israel in 2019 over Moscow’s fierce objections. Burkov was sentenced to nine years in US prison in 2020 but was ultimately deported to Russia in September 2021. A Justice Department spokesperson declined to comment on the details of the case then, but clarified that Burkov’s deportation “was not a [prisoner] exchange.”
CNN’s Jennifer Hansler and Kylie Atwood contributed reporting