Greece’s Supreme Court has ruled in favor of extraditing to the United States a Russian suspected of being the world’s highest-profile financial cybercriminal to stand trial for allegedly laundering up to $4 billion using the virtual currency bitcoin.
Alexander Vinnik made his final appearance in an Athens court Wednesday amid an ongoing legal battle between Washington and Moscow, who are both seeking his extradition. Greece’s justice minister will ultimately decide on where Mr. Vinnik gets sent.
The case was heard against a backdrop of growing global interest in the murky world of virtual currencies — interest that’s been fueled by a recent boom in the price of bitcoin. The cryptocurrency began the year trading below $1,000, but in a record breaking surge that many analysts call a dangerous bubble, it is now worth more than $16,000.
Some analysts have said Mr. Vinnik’s behind-the-scenes extradition drama recalls the days of Cold War intrigue over cryptology as Russian and U.S. officials have scrambled during recent months in a diplomatic fight for the mysterious 38-year-old’s secrets.
American authorities seek to bring Mr. Vinnik from Greece to the United States to learn how he might have worked his schemes through BTC-e, one of the world’s largest digital currency exchanges, which he allegedly operated. They also want to know who his partners might have been and, most important, whose money he might have helped hide.
Russia, however, would rather get Mr. Vinnik to Moscow to keep his innovative tactics and network to themselves.
As for the former bitcoin platform operator himself, he denies any wrongdoing and is not contesting the Russian extradition request.
Garrick Hileman, a research fellow at the University of Cambridge, said bitcoin’s growing acceptance by mainstream markets makes criminal cases surrounding the currency more significant.
“For bitcoin to continue to attract regulated and institutional investors it will need to operate within the law,” Mr. Hileman told The Associated Press.
“The United States, with the support of evidence from various cyber sleuths, is arguing that Mr. Vinnik and BTC-e were two of the biggest bad actors in the cryptocurrency industry,” he said. “Bringing bad actors to justice will help bitcoin move beyond its tainted history.”
Mr. Vinnik was arrested at a northern Greek holiday resort in July by a joint U.S.-Interpol task force. His lawyer, Ilias Spyrliadis, said he and Mr. Vinnik will respond to Wednesday’s decision when it is formally published in about one week.
For those watching the developments, the overall Vinnik case has spurred public anxiety about the illegal use of the shadowy digital currency.
Earlier this year, America’s defense and intelligence communities were so alarmed at surges in what appeared to be illegal bitcoin activity by terrorists, drug kingpins and white-collar criminals that they launched a wave of operations this year against Russian cybercriminals — an effort that included the capture of Mr. Vinnik.
The use of the cryptocurrency continues expanding in volatile markets and crippled economies around the world. In Venezuela, for instance, the total number of users remains unclear.
But reports on Wednesday said weekly Venezuelan bitcoin trading volume through one popular website has soared from about $225,000 earlier this year to nearly $2.1 million in the first week of December.
• Based in part on wire service reports.