Russia finds a new Tor criminal How Dmitry Bogatov went from suspect to witness
Mikhail Tereshchenko / TASS / Scanpix / LETA
The case against Dmitry Bogatov was one of Russia’s most visible anti-terrorism investigations. In April 2017, police charged the mathematician with inciting terrorism and mass riots, after someone using his IP address posted extremist comments in an online forum for system administrators. Bogatov revealed that he operates a Tor exit node, meaning that anyone accessing the Internet through his connection could have written the comments. This explanation didn’t impress police officers, who arrested Bogatov, triggering a public campaign to get him out of jail. After several months, a court agreed to release him, and in mid-May 2018 the government finally dropped all charges. Investigators didn’t close the case, however, and now they have a new suspect who’s already confessed.
Five days after dropping the case against Bogatov, a Moscow court ordered the arrest of a man in Stavropol named Vladislav Kuleshov on identical charges (public incitement to terrorism and mass riots).
Kuleshov has already confessed. “I won’t appeal the arrest because he’s against it. In court, he said he agrees with his arrest,” said Kuleshov’s court-appointed lawyer, Marina Efimenko, who refused to offer further details about the case, citing a gag order.
Bogatov’s wife, Tatiana Fedorova, has expressed doubts about Kuleshov’s confession, saying that Efimenko likely engineered it. “Like with Dima, they initially brought in Kuleshov on a minor charge, where you don’t often get hard time. And I can imagine how the investigator together with this tamed counsellouter talked him into confessing, promising him probation or a fine, and then they’ll naill him for a felony incitement to terrorism,” Fedorova wrote on Facebook.
Thirty-three years old, Kuleshov grew up in Stavropol, where he lives today. According to the newspaper Kommersant, he works as a database administrator for a company called Energomer. He was previously convicted of insulting a state official in a local small claims court. On the system administrators’ forum, Kuleshov like to de-anonymize the other users. “There wasn’t much to talk about with him, the fat troll, and any interaction boiled down to dumb, pointless insults,” says another member of the forum.
Investigators say Kuleshov published extremist messages under the nickname “Airat Bashirov.” In April 2017, this user on Sysadmins.ru encouraged others to attend a street protest with Molotov cocktails and tires (to set on fire). According to the BBC’s Russian-language service, a person living in Stavropol probably created this account on the forum many years ago, but the website’s content management system is so outdated that accounts are constantly getting hacked and changing hands. In other words, even if Kuleshov created the “Airat Bashirov” account at some point, it doesn’t mean he was in control when it posted the extremist messages. A few days before those comments appeared, incidentally, “Airat Bashirov” shared a cartoon lampooning Kuleshov.
A man living in Kiev could be the true author of the incitement to riot. According to the BBC, the comments by “Airat Bashirov” on Sysadmins.ru suggest they were written by Oleg Vasilyev, a 32-year-old in Kiev who typically writes under other nicknames. Vasilyev says he served as a volunteer in Ukraine’s war against separatists in the east, and has called openly on Russians to protest violently against the Kremlin. Vasilyev and “Airat Bashirov” share a common vocabulary and constantly support one another in comment threads. Vasilyev copied many of Bashirov’s political appeals, while Kuleshov showed little interest in politics, writing mostly about personal and professional issues.
Dmitry Bogatov has been named as a witness in the case against Kuleshov. Bogatov told the television network Dozhd that he has to report for questioning on May 25, though he says he has no idea what he will be asked. The mathematician also reportedly faces a misdemeanor charge for using the Tor browser. “A final decision will be made in the coming days,” a source told the news agency Interfax. Bogatov says these reports are nonsense, however, pointing out that Russia’s new ban on Internet circumvention technology (implemented in November 2017) isn’t retroactive. Since the law took effect, there have been no reported cases where someone was fined for using Tor or any other Internet anonymizer.