For years, a mysterious self-identified "hacker" has boasted about wreaking havoc against prominent Kremlin critics, claiming responsibility for stealing troves of their personal e-mails leaked online and hijacking their social-media accounts.
To date, however, the true identity of the individual -- known by the online pseudonym Hell and arguably the Russian-language Internet’s most notorious alleged hacker -- has never been publicly confirmed.
But that may soon change for the pseudonymous blogger, who once bragged that "they can’t catch me."
A Bonn court on June 24 is set to hear a criminal case against the online activist that opposition leader Aleksei Navalny claims is based on materials he provided to German prosecutors.
"Anyone who wants to personally get to know the hacker can do so just one week from now," Navalny wrote in a June 18 post on his website.
Navalny declined to give the individual’s name, but identified the blogger as a 41-year-old man.
Hell’s targets have included the famous novelist-turned-Kremlin-critic Boris Akunin; the fiery dissident Valeria Novodvorskaya, who died last year; and numerous journalists and political activists prominent in opposition circles.
Going After Navalny
But Hell’s greatest impact on Russian political life was his alleged hack of Navalny’s e-mails in 2012. Navalny makes a direct link between this breach and his subsequent criminal convictions, which he said were largely based on the contents of those stolen correspondences.
Russian authorities scoured the e-mails for anything “that resembled anything close to a discussion of some sort of business and declared it fraud,” Navalny wrote this week.
Navalny, a driving force behind antigovernment street protests in Moscow in 2011-12, is currently serving two suspended sentences following convictions on theft and embezzlement charges. He and his allies call the prosecutions groundless and say they are part of a Kremlin campaign to punish him for his activism.
In a June 2012 interview with the pro-Kremlin newspaper Izvestia, an individual claiming to be Hell said Navalny was chosen as a target because the opposition leader “is a fraudster and a scoundrel.”
“It was a very difficult breach,” Hell was quoted as saying in the interview.
Hell also claimed to have hacked Navalny’s Twitter and Facebook accounts that same year.
Speculation has long swirled in the Russian blogosphere that Hell is connected to Russian security services, and that despite all of the braggadocio about hacking skills, the blogger may have been spoon-fed the hacked e-mails by operatives linked to the Russian government.
It had long been widely understood that Hell resides in Germany. Vladimir Pribylovsky, an enigmatic political analyst who catalogues biographies across Russia’s political landscape, several years ago claimed to have exposed Hell as a Russian emigre living in Bonn. (Hell also claims to have victimized Pribylovsky.)
Navalny wrote on his website that investigators in Bonn raided Hell’s apartment in 2013 and confiscated discs and other data-storage devices that contained the opposition leader’s e-mails.
He added that the court is set to convene at 9:30 a.m. on June 24 and provided a link to the schedule on the Bonn court’s website (case no. Ls 6/15).
Navalny, who had his passport taken away from him due to his convictions, said he is a co-plaintiff in the case but will not be able to travel to Germany to serve as a witness in the case.
Hell responded to Navalny’s post with a series of tweets laced with the colorful, profane, and grammatically disastrous language that is a hallmark of the blogger’s online output.
In several of the tweets, the blogger suggested that the “dude” facing criminal charges in Bonn is not, in fact, Hell.
With reporting by Armen Sargsyan