A Russian military court convicted a former senior counterintelligence officer and a cybersecurity firm executive of treason Tuesday, concluding a case that initially aroused speculation of a manufactured effort to punish the source of leaks about Russian campaign hacking.
Moscow’s District Military Court heard several months of evidence and arguments behind closed doors before it found Col. Sergei Mikhailov, an ex-officer at Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB), and Kaspersky Lab executive Ruslan Stoyanov guilty.
The basis for the charges remains murky given the top-secret nature of the criminal proceedings. Russian media have reported the case centers on accusations that Mikhailov contacted Stoyanov to pass information from an FSB probe of a Russian businessmen Pavel Vrublevsky to an analyst with alleged ties to the FBI.
Mikhailov, the deputy head of cyber intelligence at the domestic security agency, also known as FSB, received a 22-year prison sentence and was stripped of his military rank and decorations, which included the elite “For Services to the Fatherland.”
The court gave Stoyanov 14 years. The two men listened to the verdicts and sentences from a glass cage inside the courtroom, flanked by masked men.
After the pair were arrested and charged in December 2016, the timing led some people to suggest the actions were linked to the 2016 U.S. presidential election and a possible mole who tipped off U.S. intelligence agencies about Russian interference.
Later news reports said Mikhailov was prosecuted for passing on details about an unrelated case to an American cybercrime analyst.
Andrei Soldatov, an expert on the Russian security services and co-author of “Red Web” told The Associated Press on Tuesday he still thinks the criminal case against Mikhailov and Stoyanov was a direct response to U.S. officials investigating election-related hacking.
“Their arrest… was a direct follow-up to the outcry in the U.S. over the Russian meddling,” Soldatov said. “Mikhailov was the top FSB officer in charge of maintaining contacts with Western security agencies in the cyber-sphere, something that went out of fashion after the last scandal.”
Inga Lebedeva, Stoyanov’s defense lawyer, said secrecy rules prevented her from providing details about the trial. But Lebedeva said after the verdicts were given that allegations involving potential meddling in the U.S. elections did not come up.
She alleged the charges were trumped up to appease the Russian businessman Mikhailov was accused of passing on information about, Pavel Vrublevsky.
“The case has been concocted at Vrublevsky’s orders” Lebedeva alleged.
Vrublevsky, who testified during the long trial, rejected her accusation. It was not the content of the information Mikhailov allegedly passed on to the American analyst that constituted treason, but that he shared information about an active FSB investigation with a foreign citizen.
The businessman alleged Mikhailov abused his position at the FSB to go after internet entrepreneurs like him and “turn them into cybercriminals,” thus “whipping up cyber-hysteria around the world.”