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Germany Convicts Notorious Russian Hacker In Navalny Email Breach

Sergei Maksimov, right, at a courthouse in Bonn. Maksimov was convicted August 5 of hacking Russian opposition leader Aleksei Navalny's email account.

A German court has convicted a notorious hacker of cybercrimes linked to the theft of Russian opposition leader Aleksei Navanly’s emails and the hijacking of his Twitter account.

A district court in Bonn on August 5 handed Sergei Maksimov, a Russian-born German resident, an 18-month suspended sentence after finding him guilty of hacking Navalny’s email and Twitter feed in 2011-12. The ruling also established in a court of law that Maksimov is the computer hacker behind the online moniker “Hell.”

Throughout the six-week trial, Maksimov insisted that he was not the person behind the Hell persona -- who for years has boasted about stealing troves personal e-mails from prominent Kremlin critics and leaking them online.

In addition to the suspended sentence, the Bonn court ordered Maksimov to complete 400 hours of community service, Deutsche Welle’s Russian-language service reported from the courtroom.

The intrigue surrounding the case derives largely from Hell’s high-profile targets and the years of speculation about the self-proclaimed hacker’s true identity.

Hell’s targets have included well-known Kremlin critics like the novelist Boris Akunin and blogger Andrei Malgin, as well as the fiery dissident Valeria Novodvorskaya, who died last year.

But while an investigation by Russian bloggers several years ago claimed to have definitively outed Maksimov as Hell, no solid corroboration of their findings had emerged until Maksimov’s trial and subsequent conviction in Bonn.

Computers confiscated from Maksimov’s Bonn apartment by German investigators contained thousands of personal emails that prosecutors say were stolen from Hell’s victims, including Navalny, Deutsche Welle reported.

German police also linked Maksimov’s IP address to the Hell persona and found a copy of a fraudulent passport of a second victim in the German investigation, which was based on materials that Navalny provided to German prosecutors.

Navalny, who is currently serving two suspended sentences following convictions on theft and embezzlement charges, says Maksimov’s online activities were far more sinister than mere cyber-hooliganism.

He wrote in June that Russian authorities scoured the stolen emails that Hell published for anything “that resembled anything close to a discussion of some sort of business and declared it fraud.”

Navalny, a leader of the antigovernment street protests in Moscow in 2011-12, says his criminal convictions are part of a Kremlin campaign to punish him for his activism.

Some prominent voices in the Russian-language segment of the Internet, commonly referred to as the Runet, have suggested that Hell is not a master hacker but merely acted as a conduit for stolen materials spoon-fed to him by individuals with ties to Russian authorities.

Maksimov said after the trial began that he had collected the materials German investigators found at his apartment from open sources in order to defend himself against the charges, Deutsche Welle reported.

“People in the courtroom have no clue what the Runet is,” he was quoted as saying. “There could be hundreds of thousands of these Hells on the Internet.”

Navalny was characteristically caustic in his assessment of Maksimov’s suspended sentence, comparing it with politically charged punishments handed down at Moscow’s Basmanny district court, which Kremlin critics have turned into a synonym for a rigged judiciary.

“The sentence was normal,” Navalny wrote on his Twitter feed. “A German court is not the Basmanny court. They don’t hand out prison sentences left and right there.”

With reporting by
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    Carl Schreck

    Carl Schreck is an award-winning investigative journalist who serves as RFE/RL's enterprise editor. He has covered Russia and the former Soviet Union for more than 20 years, including a decade in Moscow. He has led investigations into corruption, cronyism, and disinformation campaigns in Russia and Central Asia, as well as on poisoning attacks against Kremlin opponents and assassinations of Iranian exiles in the West. Schreck joined RFE/RL in 2014.